The Westminster Specialist Domestic Abuse Court

by
Lucy Slade
This specialist court model employs a multi-agency approach to provide a more effective response to processing domestic abuse cases within the criminal justice system.

Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts

Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts (SDACs), originally referred to as specialist domestic violence courts, were first piloted in England and Wales in 1999, replicating a model of specialist courts already in existence in the USA, Canada and Australia. Generally operating out of existing courts, Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts cover a range of practice models that were developed to improve the processing of domestic abuse cases within the criminal justice system. SDACs were born out of the recognition that due to the complex victim-perpetrator relationship, domestic abuse differs to other types of offences, and acknowledgement that the criminal justice system has failed to provide an effective response to domestic abuse cases.

The Westminster Specialist Domestic Abuse Court

Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse (STADA) is a national charity dedicated to eradicating domestic abuse. STADA developed the pioneering West London SDAC at Hammersmith Magistrates court, in partnership with the court and other statutory and voluntary sector partner agencies in 2002, and later established another SDAC at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in 2012. Following the closure of Hammersmith Magistrates’ Court, both SDACs continue to operate within Westminster Magistrates’ Court, and are regarded as leading models of SDAC practice in England and Wales.

The SDAC aims to enhance the judicial system’s ability to provide protection and support to victims and witnesses of domestic abuse. The Westminster SDAC model seeks to address issues that often hamper the ability of criminal justice system agencies in standard courts to effectively address domestic abuse. Issues such as a focus on internal performance targets, poor information sharing between agencies and a lack of awareness of domestic abuse issues from criminal justice system agencies. This is seen to contribute to disjointed and delayed process for victims, who report feeling excluded from the court process, and that their safety is not properly addressed both inside and outside of the court room.  As a consequence, support for prosecution from the victim is often withdrawn, which contributes to low charge, prosecution and conviction rates of domestic abuse in comparison to other offences.

The model works to improve these issues through several key features:

  • Domestic abuse cases are grouped into a single hearing overseen by magistrates or a district judge and dedicated court staff, who receive training in domestic abuse issues.
  • Court coordinators track each case and help the relevant criminal justice agencies to stay informed on the developments in the case, and access and share information on the risks to the victim, so they are able to make appropriate safeguarding decisions.
  • Victims are supported during the process by an independent domestic abuse advocate (IDVA) employed by the domestic abuse charity Advance who has specialist knowledge of the criminal justice system. The IDVA provides emotional support and explains the criminal justice system, assists with safety planning throughout proceedings and provides updates about case hearings.
  • There is an emphasis on making special provisions for victims to minimise the fear of threat or intimidation, such as providing a separate entrance and video links or screens inside the court.
  • Partnership working is the key to the model, which unites disparate actors under a structure of governance and multi-agency protocols, to provide a coordinated and consistent approach. This strengthens the ability of busy and strained services to work together and keep the experience of the survivor at the centre of the process.
  • Regular court management steering and operational groups are hosted with third sector and criminal justice agencies to discuss court practice, to improve coordination and accountability between key statutory and non-statutory agencies.

The intended outcome of this approach is to improve the experience of the victim and increase their confidence in the process, ultimately to encourage the reporting of future crimes and increase the successful prosecution of cases.

The court is well established with local partners and agencies in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and hears domestic abuse cases twice a week, covering these boroughs as well as British Transport Police and City of London cases. Standing Together oversee the provision of the core components of the model such as providing court coordinators, overseeing data and monitoring of the service as well as providing training around domestic abuse issues to other staff.

For more information about Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts, please contact Kira Gregory from Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse at k.gregory@standingtogether.org.uk

This case-study was compiled in 2021