Victims’ families tend to get forgotten in the justice system. This is my family’s story.
We were on holiday last week in Portugal, one of the last places my beautiful daughter Anisha ever went in her too short life. It was, like everything, both something that helped the family – we felt close to her – and something that was extremely painful.
We went looking for her in all the places we knew from photos and videos that she had been to. I insisted on trying to find a smoothie bar where we had a video of her on a bike peddling to power the smoothie machine, laughing. I think that somewhere in my mind I thought that maybe she would still be there, but, of course, she couldn’t be and, in any event, the bar seems to have closed down. Everything seems the same and yet nothing is, but since nothing feels real, you imagine sometimes that anything could be true.
In the middle of all of this I got an email. The driver who killed my daughter, who drove at around 65mph in a 30mph speed zone, on both sides of the road, through two red lights, who didn’t stop when he had hit her, who didn’t turn himself in despite a police search of his home until 48 hours later, pleading guilty to get his 10.5-year sentence reduced and avoiding a test for alcohol or drugs, whose lawyer didn’t come to court on the first date for sentencing [lockdown day in March 2020] in order to get a delay so he could be tested for his ‘psychological trauma’ [the report suggested nothing out of the ordinary], who refused to come to court twice to be sentenced, had been granted leave to move to an open prison just a year and a half since he killed her. There he is likely to be granted day release before he leaves prison in 2023.
I only found out about this because I chased it. He had already applied for a move to an open prison at the earliest possible opportunity. We were asked to write a statement in April as to why we objected, which I did. He appealed and that was rejected too. We were told by our Victim Liaison Officer that he would try again in September.
Throughout August and September I have been mentally preparing a statement as to why he shouldn’t be granted this. We had since received the police report [the police had flagged him to slow down before he took off at speed when a gap opened in the traffic] which was essentially all about the difference between the word ‘pursue’ and ‘follow’ and in which there is a picture of the car approaching my daughter in the road with the remark that no brake lights were on and in which the police said they saw what they thought was ‘debris’ in the air as they followed the driver. That debris was my daughter.
I chased the coroner, who had opened an inquest last year which we were told could take months or even years. We were told that the inquest had been closed. ‘You may know’ the email said, that the driver had been sentenced and there had been a police report – as if my daughter was so unimportant to us that we wouldn’t care to even find out about the case. I replied that not only did we know, but we had been in court, unlike the defendant.
I disagreed with the decision to close the inquest. I needed to know everything. Mainly this is because I replay that night in my head endlessly, trying to save my daughter. I have been to the site and the road is much narrower than in my imagining. I dream of it being several lanes wide and of all my other children being stuck at various points across that road, of not being able to save them. I crossed the road for my daughter who wasn’t able to.
The coroner said I could get a lawyer if I wanted to object. I contacted a local pressure group which is part of a campaign about road safety in that area. Brixton Hill is the site of many accidents, including fatal ones. They advised me to contact the council. I did so. They said councillors had had a meeting with Transport for London, the police, council officers and cabinet members and had decided that there was nothing that could be done to avoid “absolutely criminal behaviour by speeding drivers determined to ignore all safety measures”. No-one thought to tell us this though. For us, who had been practically the only people in court for the sentencing, who have chased every stage of this case alone – and you have to chase everything and it takes doubly long due to Covid – it seems as if no-one cares at all.
It appears there is nothing that can be learnt from what happened to help others. The only ‘justice’ there is concerns the sentencing of the driver.
So I chased the Victim Liaison Officer. It took over a week for a response. She said she would look into it. That was in late September. Early last week in our hotel room, we heard that the decision had already been made to transfer the driver. That sent me into days of despair. Apparently there had been ‘a mistake’. One Victim Liaison Officer had left and there hadn’t been a proper handover. Our case had slipped through the net. An apology was proffered, but there is apparently nothing we can do. The driver has ‘ticked the boxes’ and gets to ‘move through the system’. We were told the decision is not based on what he did, but on his ‘risk’ to the community and to us.
I questioned how he could possibly not be considered a risk to the community. He has several previous convictions, including for driving under the influence of drugs, and has served time before. He didn’t apparently learn anything from this. He did not stop; he could have killed several people [my daughter’s boyfriend and friend were just feet behind her]; he did not show up in court. In our opinion, he has not faced up to what he has done in any conceivable way. I wanted him to come to court to hear my statement because, for me, that was his sentence – to know who my daughter was and the impact of what he had done. How is he not a risk to the community?
Then there is the risk to us. Apparently, because he is a stranger there is no risk to us. ‘What more can he do to us?’ I asked the Victim Liaison Officer. My father died of a stroke soon after Anisha, saying her death was the worse news he had received in his life, my mum has developed a heart condition, my children have all needed counselling. It is like a bomb has gone off in our family and what’s worse is that we cannot talk about it yet because everyone is at different stages of grief. Grief is such a very lonely process, particularly during a pandemic. There are few visits, all counselling and support groups are on Zoom or the phone, which isn’t the best for teenagers, and people rarely even ring. It is hard to get up some days and to feel any desire to continue with this life, although, of course, we must. What more does the driver have to do? The risk is ongoing. I fear for my family at every moment.
The Victim Liaison Officer suggested Restorative Justice. I’m not sure how I feel about that and what is meant to be restored, but I want the driver to face up to what he has done. The problem is that both parties have to agree to do Restorative Justice and I very much doubt he will do so.
So I told the Victim Liaison Officer that her job appeared to be little more than a PR for a completely flawed justice system – to stop us from getting too angry – and that I really don’t feel it is worth engaging any further with ‘the process’ because it adds trauma onto an already extremely traumatic situation. Whether it is the court system, the coroner’s office [we still haven’t got the death certificate] or trying to seek compensation – because the sentencing seemed inadequate punishment – nothing works for the victim’s family.
When it comes to criminal injuries compensation, for instance, apparently my daughter is some kind of non-person legally because she was over 18 and not married, even though we were paying for her at university and she came home in the holidays. If she had fractured her arm, she would have been able to claim. We were told the only thing we could possibly claim for were the 30 seconds of terror she would have experienced before her death. We actually lost money investigating this. None of this is, of course, newsworthy at all because it happens all the time. But that doesn’t make it right.
Ironically, the driver’s father is a human rights barrister who specialises, among other things, in “challenging public law and human rights issues in the criminal justice and prison system”. A firm he works for represented the driver in court and tried to get him off without a prison sentence, referring to the case as if it were some kind of ‘unfortunate incident’. I know the law is probably just a game and that those who know the rules are most likely to ‘win’. I’m not a hang them and flog them type of person and I know that nothing will make up for what happened, that maybe I’m howling at the moon, that maybe I should just let this drop. But I’ve been a human rights campaigner and it’s not in me to let something that is not right just pass.
Nothing can bring my daughter back, but perhaps I can do something small to change the system because, like a bad parent, it seems to enable the driver to escape taking responsibility for what he has done. It’s a huge task, and the system itself, like many things in this country, is crumbling. I don’t have much optimism. Systemic issues are the most difficult to tackle, as we know with women and work, but that is not a reason to give up.