Specialist ‘problem-solving courts’ for domestic abuse must be at the heart of Criminal Court reform: new report

In a ground-breaking report to be published on Monday 7th December, the justice reform thinktank, the Centre for Justice Innovation, calls on government to set up specialist ‘problem-solving’ courts to tackle high-harm crimes like domestic abuse.


The report, ‘Better Courts: A blueprint for innovation’, comes as the Lord Chancellor Michael Gove considers options for problem-solving courts in England and Wales. These innovative courts, widely seen in the United States and Australia, use specialist professionals to tackle common causes of crime like drug addiction, alcohol abuse and mental health illness.


A wide-ranging call for reform, Better Courts highlights evidence that the criminal courts are ‘failing’ to address domestic abuse. Despite a growth of 34% in reported incidents to the police since 2007, victims are often reluctant to testify and find the current system confusing, intimidating, and, at points, aggressive.


To make matters worse, the report highlights that victims frequently have to appear in several different courts: moving between criminal, family and civil courts. In what would be a significant advance for the UK, the Centre’s report recommends piloting new ‘one judge, one family’ problem-solving domestic abuse courts. 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 have the opportunity to have their voices heard.


Phil Bowen, Director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, and co-author of the report 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 re-offending 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.”

Zoe Dronfield, a previous victim of domestic abuse said, “My experience of the court process was so laborious with limited and disjointed communication. I absolutely believe that domestic violence cases are complex. Often the perpetrator has committed many crimes and each time may be tried in different courts. I myself had to give evidence at the criminal court and then was summoned to go to the family court on the same day which is physically impossible. My whole life was put on hold for a year. Every time you have to relive the whole experience.  If the whole process was dealt with under one court with a holistic view and there were measures in place to prevent the perpetrator from reoffending it would make a difference to the victim’s life.”


The report‘s ‘blueprint for innovation’ recognises that money is tight and that access to, and the experience of justice for many people who come to court needs to be improved.

Several key recommendations include:


Radical proposals to expand magistrates’ role. Bringing magistrates back into their communities to oversee restorative justice and dispute resolution. Hearing more cases online. These changes require a fresh recruitment of younger, and more diverse magistrates.


Better use of technology, more effective court case management. Alongside this, court staff and judges need training to make our courts feel fairer.


New combined community/custodial sentence. Dubbed ‘swift and certain’ offenders are supervised in the community but sent swiftly to prison- sometimes just a few days- if they fail to comply. This new sentence, requiring fresh legislation, would reduce the amount of prison capacity used in imprisoning people for short term sentences.


Note to Editors: The Centre for Justice Innovation is a UK justice research and development charity. We work to build a justice system that holds people accountable, that is fair and feels fair, and which seeks to address the problems of those people who come into contact with it. We believe that many of the best ideas come from the frontline. That’s why we work to give frontline practitioners the freedom and support they need to shape evidence-led responses to the needs of their local communities. At a national level, we seek to highlight promising new research and practice and work with policy makers to identify and overcome the barriers to change experienced by practitioners. Internationally, we strive to learn lessons from around globe, with especially strong links to research and practice in the USA through our unique relationship with the Center for Court Innovation.


For more information and interviews with Phil Bowen, Zoe Dronfield please contact Arsheen Qasim on 07918831964 or aqasim@justiceinnovation.org