It was bemusement that Kat Ward felt at first, on opening the letter from Freddie Starr’s solicitors. They informed her that the entertainer intended to sue her for slander and libel unless she retracted claims she had made in the media that he’d groped her after filming an episode of Jimmy Savile’s Clunk-Click TV show in the 70s, demanding unspecified damages and a public apology.
“I rattled off a reply saying I didn’t have any money,” Ward, who was among the first of Savile’s victims to speak out after his death in 2011, remembers. “What would be the point of pressing ahead when I’m unwaged and I don’t even own my house?”
After that came panic and fear. Ward went to Oswestry, near her home in Shropshire, to consult a lawyer, only to be told that, despite her financial position, being registered disabled and having recently had surgery for bowel cancer, there was no legal aid for a case such as hers; it has never been available for defending defamation cases. “I thought: ‘This can’t be happening,’” she says. “As far as I knew, justice was available for everybody.” Eventually, she found a firm in London, who offered to defend her on a no-win, no-fee basis, an agreement most lawyers only offer to claimants. Last summer a high court judge dismissed Starr’s claim, by then specified as being for damages of £300,000, ruling that Ward’s words had been true.
A year later, Ward (who sometimes goes by the first name Karin) is calling on the new justice secretary, Liz Truss, to set up a legal aid fund specifically for survivors of abuse, which would give them the confidence to speak out without worrying they might end up fighting a financially crippling defamation claim. “We have a two-tier system of justice and it’s only getting worse,” she says. “If I had been a wealthy person, I would not have had to search for a solicitor, other than – she adopts a plummy accent – “the very best solicitor in that area, and to say: ‘You’re hired – deal with this.’”
Ward’s account of a childhood marked by violence and sexual abuse, and life as a teenage pupil at Duncroft approved school in Surrey – where she came to Savile’s attention – has just been published. “The general climate may be changing, so people are beginning to feel they can come forward and speak out about both current and historical abuse,” she says. “But there’s always that deep fear that the accused may fight back – not simply by issuing rigorous denials, but by making counter-claims and throwing doubt on the victim’s credibility.”
She says that although Starr’s “traumatic and stressful” action against her failed, it doesn’t mean every such case would. “It’s certainly something survivors of abuse, a disproportionate number of whom are women, are likely to consider before stepping forward to tell their stories. Without a system of legal aid available to victims, there are doubtless many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, who will remain silent. “That’s their absolute right, but it also means that perpetrators have walked away without punishment or even exposure to their peers. The thing about victims is that they have very little in the way of self-esteem or self-belief, and when there is no help readily available, they’re likely to shrug and turn back into the dark. No victim ever expects real justice to apply to them. We need to change that.”
Ward accepts it’s easy to suggest such a fund without knowing where the money might come from, but insists this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. One route could be seeking public donations, she suggests. But her call comes against a backdrop of brutal legal aid cuts to housing, debt, welfare benefits and private family law. In 2012/13, before these took effect, 724,243 civil law cases were funded by legal aid. By 2015/16 the figure was just 258,460.
Solicitors’ fees for legal aid cases have also been cut. “Lots of lawyers don’t want to do legal aid because they’re not earning what they’re worth,” Ward says. “That’s a kick in the teeth for any lawyer who decides they really want to help people who are a little less wealthy than everybody else.” How does that two-tier system square with Theresa May’s ambitions for a country run in the interests of everyone, not just the privileged few? Ward rubs her forehead. “It’s just useless piffle, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter who the prime minister is … they’re just out of touch. They really don’t know how ordinary people live.”
Since Ward appeared in the ITV documentary that first unveiled Savile’s sexual abuse, Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, in October 2012, hundreds of people have come forward making allegations against the DJ to Operation Yewtree, the investigation launched by the Metropolitan Police Service in the wake of the revelations. High-profile figures unconnected to Savile, including publicist Max Clifford and DJ Dave Lee Travis, have been convicted for sex crimes under the operation.
Meanwhile, the public inquiry into child sexual abuse across England and Wales set up following the Savile scandal is passing cases to the police at a rate of 100 a month, and reports of abuse made to the police rose by 60% between 2011 and 2014 – although, at the same time, the number of arrests fell by 9%.
Does Ward ever think about her role in it all? “I try not to, because I don’t want to get too big for my boots,” she says. “I’ve had so many people say lots of nice things to me. But I’ve never been very good at receiving compliments because I’ve never really been taught how to.” The numbers of allegations may be rising, but Ward doesn’t think the level of child abuse itself – sexual, emotional or physical – has changed. “I don’t think there was a heyday of it in the 60s and 70s; I think it’s remained fairly static throughout. Right now, as we speak, it’s still going on.”
For her, as for victims everywhere, being believed “is a really big deal”. “I went through the whole of my life being told I was lying, that I was a troublemaker,” she says. How did it feel, then, to finally be believed by a high court judge? “There’s only one word: gobsmacked. David [Price QC, her solicitor] was grinning from ear to ear.” She beams, herself. “He kept saying: ‘You cannot get better than that.’’’ Yeah, I was very pleased.”
She says she has only recently learned how to live, rather than just to exist. “When you exist. you live in a kind of shadow world,” she says. “You go through the motions: you cook the kids’ tea, and you do the dishes, the laundry and the ironing; you take the dog for a walk. You do those things but there’s no joy in it. “But then it’s like lifting a veil, and all of a sudden something as simple as standing at the sink washing a few cups and looking out of the window – even if it’s chucking it down with rain – it’s bright. It’s very much there, and in your face and something to be enjoyed.”
Victim Zero by Kat Ward is published by John Blake Books, price £7.99. To order it for £6.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.