MoJ considers specialist courts for issues such as domestic abuse
he potential for developing more US-style specialist tribunals – including courts dedicated to tackling the surge in domestic abuse cases – is being examined by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Enthusiasm for the initiative follows a visit by Michael Gove, the justice secretary, to the US last summer during which he looked at the role of the country’s judiciary in overseeing enforcement of sentences and offenders’ rehabilitation.
Under the latest model being piloted in the US, the same judge sits in both criminal and civil aspects of any domestic abuse case to ensure judicial continuity and faster processing of trials.
Procedures in which judges’ involvement extends beyond the point of sentencing are known as “problem-solving courts”. Addressing the Magistrates Association last week, Gove endorsed the principle.
“I recently visited the US to look at the innovative ways in which the judiciary were taking an active role in overseeing the rehabilitation of the offenders they had sentenced,” he told magistrates.
“I was impressed by the potential of these ‘problem-solving’ courts to contribute to crime reduction and personal redemption. I know many of you care a great deal about the rehabilitation of the people who appear in front of you in court and want to play a bigger part in that process.
“The lord chief justice [Lord Thomas] and I have discussed how we can learn from the experience of problem-solving courts in other jurisdictions and we are both keen to look at what more we can do in this area.”
What few specialist courts there are in the UK have had a precarious existence during the recent period of MoJ cutbacks and court closures.
The west London drugs court is no longer staffed exclusively by specially trained magistrates. Family drug and alcohol courts (FDACs), which exist in London, Milton Keynes and Gloucestershire, have been expanding slowly.
One of the courts Gove visited last summer was Newark municipal court in New Jersey, where convicted offenders are brought back regularly to have progress on community sentences assessed. The judge can send offenders to prison for failing to comply with rehabilitation orders.
The Better Courts: a Blueprint for Innovation report published on Monday notes that despite a 34% rise in domestic abuse incidents reported to the police since 2007, victims are often reluctant to testify.
Many say they find the existing system confusing and intimidating – having to appear in several different courts, moving between criminal, family and civil courts.
The report recommends piloting new “one judge, one family” problem-solving domestic abuse courts, under which the judge would hear criminal, civil and family cases under the same roof. Offenders would be monitored by the judge throughout their sentence and victims given the opportunity to have their voices heard.
Phil Bowen, the director of the Centre for Justice Innovation and the report’s co-author, said: “Even though total crime is down, we’re seeing the rise in reporting of many more complex crimes like domestic abuse. It’s unacceptable that when victims come forward, they’re required to turn up at different courts multiple times to get justice. A key recommendation in our wide-ranging report is to trial evidence-based specialist domestic abuse courts. They’ve been shown to reduce delays, reduce reoffending and increase victim perceptions of fairness.
“Courts are the linchpin of our justice system. A better court system ought to have fairness and problem-solving at its heart. These will be courts which are neither harsh nor weak, but simply better.”
Bowen, who used to work in the MoJ, said he had talked to Gove about domestic abuse courts and had been told by officials that “this is very much on the agenda of court reform in the future.”
An MoJ spokesperson said: “We welcome this report and will reflect on its recommendations. As the justice secretary has said, our courts and tribunals need urgent reform. Our courts are archaic and slow, and their antiquated processes do not meet the needs of modern society.
“That is why we are building a justice system that is swifter and more certain. We will utilise modern technology to meet the needs of everyone who uses our services.”