The death of Frances Andrade and the search for justice for survivors

Less than a week after being cross-examined in Manchester Crown Court during the trial of Michael Brewer and his ex-wife Hilary (Kay) Brewer, violin teacher Frances Andrade was found dead at her home in Surrey of an apparent suicide. Her death was revealed to the court on 24th January, without the jury present. Mrs Andrade had been a pupil at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester in the 1970s, where Michael Brewer was Choirmaster. Michael and Hilary Brewer have since been convicted of sexually abusing Mrs Andrade when she was 14 and 15.

Mrs Andrade’s son, Oliver Andrade, has shone a harsh spotlight on the justice system since his mother’s death, describing how being called a “liar” and a “fantasist” in front of the court was “more than even she could bear”. He criticised the court practice whereby Mrs Andrade was not given sufficient time to prepare with the barrister assigned to her case: “Being a case of the Crown Prosecution Service they had a barrister and [Mrs Andrade] was simply the complainant, not meeting him until the day of the case and talking for a scant 10 minutes outside of the court”. He continued: “this all meant that during the case she was unfamiliar with the process, unsure of what either barrister was trying to do and exceptionally uncomfortable throughout the entire thing.” He also accused the police of advising Mrs Andrade not to receive therapy until the end of the case, which he said deprived his mother of the help and support she needed.

Frances Andrade’s husband, Levine Andrade, has echoed his son’s words, describing how “Fran felt as if she was on trial. She kept saying: ‘I can see why nobody comes forward. I can see how people crack under the pressure’”.

Yet, at the end of the trial Judge Martin Rutland praised all counsel – including Kate Blackwell QC, the defence barrister who questioned Mrs Andrade – for their conduct in the case. Judge Rutland assured Kate Blackwell “You did your job, in that you put what had to be put to the witness”.

In addition, both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Greater Manchester Police have deniedhaving advised Mrs Andrade not to seek therapy until after the trial. Detective Chief Superintendent Mary Doyle insisted that it is the police force’s “policy and practice to encourage victims to seek whatever support they need” and that “the advice to Frances not to seek support may have been given by another party but it was not the advice of Greater Manchester Police.” The CPS has released similar statements.

Yet in the end, a woman considered exceptionally able and intelligent, an accomplished professional and fine mother, took her own life due to the overwhelming pressures of pursing a case against those who had sexually abused her.  This represents not just a tragedy for Mrs Andrade and her family, but for survivors of sexual abuse, a harsh refutation of the idea that the justice system will work for them.

So where was the fault?

This is an important question. There is an exceedingly precarious balance between supportive protection for vulnerable witnesses, and a fair trial for defendants, who are entitled to a thorough testing of the evidence. Striking this balance is often more difficult in historic claims, where evidence may have degraded (witnesses may have died or cannot be found; memories fade), and the cumulative effects of suffering the scars of abuse may make it difficult for claimants to come forward at all, and to withstand the scorching scrutiny that is built into the adversarial system.

While the justice system exists to protect all of society, the fight in individual cases is also for the benefit of those who area victim of crime.  In this case, a conviction was achieved, but the victim was re-victimised in the process, and never witnessed the justice that her bravery and candour made possible. Indeed, we repeatedly see how survivors of child abuse must often battle forcefully to overcome feelings of guilt and shame just to disclose the criminal acts of their abusers for the first time to loved ones – so to be grilled before a court may seem impossibly daunting. Mrs Andrade’s sad death has underlined just how gruelling the road to liberation from childhood sex abuse can be.

But while asking what went wrong, we should not lose sight of the fact that the legal system is not just a place where claims of abuse are picked to pieces – it is also where they may succeed and bring justice, inspiring other survivors in doing so. Mrs Andrade was one of many victims of childhood sex abuse who has appeared in court, and for many, the legal system has delivered accountability and emancipation. Of course, there are multiple paths a survivor of childhood sexual abuse can take towards healing, and not all involve legal redress.  But Mrs Andrade’s death should not be interpreted as proof that the legal system is devoid of hope and support for survivors of child sex abuse.

There are measures in place to alleviate the difficulty faced by vulnerable witnesses. Pre-trial visits are available so that witnesses can become familiar with the court. There is access to witness care officers and specialised counsellors. Additionally, there are special in-court measures available for victims of sexual abuse who testify in criminal trials, for example screens to shield the witness from the defendant; a live televised link enabling the witness to give evidence during the trial from outside of the courtroom; video-recorded interviews; and various other measures. Information from the Crown Prosecution Service about these special measures can be found here.

As we wrote here, 2012 was a year of progress for child protection, and 2013 promises to capitalize on this momentum. The legal system is still the road less traveled for survivors of childhood sex abuse, but for every survivor who chooses it, others are often inspired to take courage, because they see they are not alone.  Though institutions that have enabled abusers may sometimes seem too big a beast to take on, and the legal system too daunting a tool, thousands of survivors have succeeded in bringing claims against their abusers and the schools, care homes, churches and other institutions that allowed them scope to abuse.  The fight for justice can nevertheless be one worth waging – strength and solidarity are contagious, and future generations of children are protected.