Some people who experienced sexual violence find a way back to their old selves again this way
Petra Ladenburger is a solicitor who represents people who experienced sexualised violence in court. Here she talks about the mental stresses of the criminal proceedings – but also about her clients' positive developments.
About Petra Ladenburger
Petra Ladenburger is a lawyer who has been representing people affected by sexualised violence before and during a trial for almost 30 years. She lectures at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences on the topics of protection against violence and family law. She also supports the Independent Commission for Dealing with Child Sexual Abuse as a hearing officer.
As a lawyer, you represent people who have been affected by sexualised violence. What exactly does that involve Ms Ladenburger?
I primarily work on criminal cases. When people who have been affected by sexual violence come to me before pressing charges, I advise them on: What would they face in a criminal case? What kinds of support are available to them? What can be the outcome of a trial? Ultimately, I help people decide whether or not to press charges. Some people, for a variety of reasons, decide not to press charges after the advice they receive. In other cases, I get involved in ongoing investigative or criminal proceedings. This might involve being present at police interrogations, making applications for further witnesses or requesting access to files. In a final step, I of course assist the people in court and represent them as a co-plaintiff.
Why do you avoid the term "victim's lawyer"?
I consider it stigmatising to refer to people who have experienced sexualised violence as "victims". In the crime situation, they are of course absolutely the victim relative to the perpetrator. But beyond the crime itself, people have many other facets. People are not simply victims, they only become victims in specific situations. The term attributes helplessness to those affected. And what's more, the term is often used as a swear word in youth slang.
The developments I observe in many of the victims and survivors are very encouraging and motivating. Often they can find their old self again during this long process.
Should the people concerned press charges directly with the police?
Criminal proceedings can be lengthy and very stressful. That's why I believe it makes sense to know what you will be up against before you make the decision to go to the police. People should obtain as much information as possible and also look into the legal side of things like what are the chances of the criminal proceeding’s success. People are often disappointed when the criminal proceedings are discontinued once they have given their statement to the police.
To what extent does it make sense to file charges when the crime was committed years ago?
It is possible that the crime is statute-barred, which means the proceedings are discontinued without further investigation. When it comes to sexual offences, the statutes of limitations are quite complicated and very much depend on the individual case. It definitely makes sense to seek legal advice. However, I have filed charges together with clients in the past even though the offence was already statute-barred. In these cases, it was important for the individuals affected that the offence was documented in a prosecutorial file. In addition, if a long time has passed, even in the case of offences that are not statute-barred, the evidentiary situation may become more difficult if, for example, the reliability of memories is called into doubt.
What do people face during a trial?
At various points in time, people have to talk about the crime in detail. The criminal proceedings start with a police preliminary investigation. Only then the public prosecutor decides whether a criminal offence was committed and whether proceedings will be instituted. People have to provide the police with a very detailed statement. They have to describe the offence in as much detail as possible, including the specific scene of the crime, the time of the crime and the crime itself. Such an interrogation goes into a lot of depth and it forces people to remember everything again in detail. If charges are filed, there will be a court trial. In court, all witnesses and often the plaintiff as well have to make another detailed statement. The degree of detail depends on the behaviour of the accused. If there is a confession, there may not be a need for a statement or a less detailed statement.
The mental strain of a trial can be significant. Why can this step still be important for the people affected?
There are many different reasons for this. Some of my clients are quite clear about wanting the accused to be held accountable and receive the harshest punishment. Quite a few of my clients do not care all that much how exactly the offender is punished. They simply want it made clear that they are telling the truth and are not themselves to blame. It is often important for them to show their social environment that they are right. Others want the offence to be on record, which would bring a sense of closure to their experience. There are also clients who want to make sure that the perpetrator cannot commit further offences. Their main concern is the protection of future potential victims. Often, several of these reasons apply at the same time.
How can parents best support their children during an ongoing trial?
I think it is very important for parents to get support. It turns their world upside down when they find out that their child has been abused. It is quite a challenge to be strong for the child and organise everything while being in shock yourself at the same time. Parents therefore need support that is independent to that of their children. It is also important to find the right kind of help for your child and perhaps also for their siblings. The kind of help that's needed can vary significantly. For example, some children do not want to talk about what happened to them at all – and parents should accept this.
In which cases can psychosocial litigation support be useful? Who is entitled to it?
Psychosocial litigation support offers help from the preliminary judicial inquiry to the court hearing. It does not just involve legal support, but also psychosocial support. The litigation assistants may be present at the hearing, for example, they establish contacts with lawyers or make the waiting time in court more tolerable. They are there to help those affected with any questions or fears they may have, offering the kind of support that goes beyond what a legal representative can provide. Psychosocial litigation support is free of charge for people who experienced sexual abuse and can be applied for at the competent court. The application can also be submitted to the police, who then pass it on to the court.
Is there anything that encourages you when it comes to your work?
I often accompany clients over a long period of time, throughout the trial proceedings. The developments I observe in many of the them are very encouraging and motivating. I very much admire people's commitment and how tough they are throughout that time. Often they can find their old self again during this long process. Many people also feel a great sense of responsibility for others. Often the reason to report an offence is not their own well-being, but rather the desire to make a difference for the benefit of others.
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