Better courts that aim to keep the most vulnerable safe
Despite overall falls in crime, our criminal courts are facing new challenges, the most serious of which is the rise in a number of complex and serious types of crime, like sexual offending and domestic abuse. As our new report outlines, these crimes have always posed challenges for our criminal justice system: the harm caused is high, the reporting of the crime to the system is low and its prosecution, let alone its resolution, is hard and resource intensive.
The current challenge before us on domestic abuse is multi-faceted. The welcome rise in reporting of it to the police inevitable creates demand on the system. And, unlike a crime like a burglary, a one off incident, the nature of domestic abuse means that the reporting of one incident to the authorities is usually the latest offence in a wider, longer-term and extensive pattern of abuse. And that pattern of abuse in turn raises more than just issues around innocence or guilt in a criminal justice sense — it raises complex emotional responses, is often associated with significant trauma and confusion, and often involves children and intricate relationships.
Because of this, we have recently called for the trial of a better court response to the realities of domestic abuse. Although we already have some courts that seek to hear all domestic abuse cases in one specialised court, we argue we need to go further, and do so in three ways.
First, our courts need to provide an integrated response to domestic abuse. When a victim reports domestic abuse, there are likely to be other legal issues that might need to resolved, outside of the criminal case. Things like the protection and custody of children. Things like divorce. And yet, at the moment, we ask victims to go to separate courts, at separate times, to resolve issues that stem from the same pattern of abuse. Already in the USA and Australia, we have seen that integrated courts around domestic abuse give victims the opportunity to resolve these cases in one place, in front of the same judge. Moreover, having integrated courts means victims who might otherwise not be considering legal redress in family or civil court may take the opportunity of a criminal case to resolve all matters. Unsurprisingly, this approach also has advantages for the court system itself— the international evidence shows that they increase convictions, witness participation and reduce court delays.
Second, the court’s job is not over when the criminal case has been settled. The evidence clearly shows that where domestic abuse courts take an active interest in the safety of the victim, and continue to monitor the compliance of the perpetrator with the court order following sentence, victims feel safer and they make a difference to the re-offending of the perpetrators.
Third, for these courts to work, we need to reinvigorate and, in places, retrain court professionals, judges, magistrates, prosecutors and others, to understand the complexity of domestic abuse and the impact it has on its survivors.
Getting the court response to domestic abuse right will not be easy. That’s because domestic abuse is itself incredibly complex and difficult. And, of course, stopping domestic abuse happening in the first place should be the priority for Government, and society, more generally. But when it does happen, and the courts are involved, we need to take our duty to build better courts seriously.