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The case for dedicated domestic violence courts

 

Domestic violence is widespread in England and Wales and the majority of victims are women. As many as one in ten women may be victims of domestic violence each year.

 

Significant international evidence suggests that dedicated domestic violence courts offer a better way to prosecute domestic violence perpetrators and keep victims safe.

 

Countries such as the US, have responded to the challenge of domestic violence with ‘problem-solving’ domestic violence courts which provide services to victims, and monitor perpetrators to ensure that they comply with court orders.

 

England and Wales has adopted some elements of the domestic violence court model in the Specialist Domestic Violence Courts (SDVCs). SDVCs in England and Wales are specially adapted magistrates’ court hearings which seek to increase the number of successful prosecutions and improve victim safety and satisfaction. They include some elements of the successful US model: victims are supported by independent domestic violence advocates, and there is additional training for staff.

 

But the domestic violence courts that we have in England and Wales lack the powers and resources that they need to be effective. In particular, SDVCs lack the option to monitor offenders in the community, a core part of the US model.

 

Domestic Violence Courts in the US

 

American domestic violence courts often embrace the principles of problem-solving courts – dedicated courts specialising in solving issues like addiction and mental illness which can lead people to crime. Adopted features in domestic violence courts can include the following:

 

  • A single dedicated judge;
  • Specialist staff and lawyers;
  • Intensive judicial supervision of offenders in the community

 

However, there are notable differences. Domestic violence courts focus on supporting victims, generally employing a victim advocate and working closely with support services in the community. They also place an emphasis on ensuring that victims feels safe in the court.

 

Evidence suggests that US domestic violence courts have a positive impact on victim safety and satisfaction and are successful in increasing the number of prosecutions. There’s also some evidence to suggest that they are effective at reducing reoffending by perpetrators.

 

 

A snapshot of domestic violence courts 2014

 

We conducted a review of English and Welsh SDVCs in 2013. Our analysis of current practice in these specialist courts suggests that significant gains have been made since 2005 when they were set up. Both the number of convictions and the percentage of successful prosecutions in domestic violence cases have increased. Despite the pressures on public services generally, there is continuing support for the principle and practice of the 138 domestic violence courts that currently exist.

 

However, our review suggests that some of the gains made since 2005 are in danger of unravelling. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of convictions for domestic violence fell by 11% despite a continuing rise in the number of incidents of domestic violence reported to the police. While the reasons for this drop in the number of convictions is complex, this means that at a time when more victims are reporting domestic violence to the police, the justice system is securing fewer convictions.

 

Our research has also shown that SDVCs lack some of the most important elements of effective domestic violence courts. In particular, the judiciary’s power to monitor perpetrators during a sentence could help our SDVCs keep victims safer and hold abusers to account.

 

Moreover, practitioners we surveyed for the study expressed concern that some of core principles of SDVCs that do exist are not being delivered consistently in some courts. SDVCs can differ widely from location to location, many do not have specialist prosecutors or judges and the level of support available can vary. SDVCs also depend on collaborative partnership work between agencies and the voluntary sector. Some practitioners are worried that this is coming under increasing strain as budgets tighten. As a result it is unclear how many SDVCs may have been effectively closed.

 

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