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Court monitoring

  • One innovative strategy to monitor the implementation of a law is to conduct court monitoring through observation of court processes. Monitors should attend civil order for protection hearings, violation of order for protection hearings, and sentencing hearings. Monitors should attend trials and court processes involving violence against women in the criminal justice system. Monitors can then assess the survivor/witness court experience and the attitude and knowledge of the judicial and prosecutorial system on issues of violence against women
  • For example, the Macedonian Women's Center - Shelter Center  monitored court proceedings in a recent project. Their report, The Monitoring of Court Proceedings (2010), identified the strengths and weaknesses of Macedonia's legal framework regarding the protection of women from violence. The report also analyzed the relationship between the courts and other bodies responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws passed to protect women from violence.  Monitors found that in cases of criminal domestic violence, poor communication between the police, social services, and the court led to cases being prolonged for 2 years, presenting a severe hardship for a victim needing financial support. The monitors concluded that the report resulted in an increased awareness about the realities of domestic violence proceedings in the justice system, enabling activists to strategize ways to overcome remaining problems in the future.
  • In another example, the author of Domestic Violence in Brazil: Examining Obstacles and Approaches to Promote Legislative Reform (2010) observed that there were no physical barriers between victim and aggressor in the hallway waiting area or the mediation area. In the mediation area, the victim was seated directly next to the aggressor. She observed that “the aggressor often intimidated the plaintiff during the proceedings by staring at her and nudging her.” p. 80

Objectives of court monitoring

  • To hold the justice system accountable for its actions by maintaining a public presence in the courts
  • To identify problem patterns and issues with the court system and to propose practical solutions
  • To improve the administration of justice
  • To increase public awareness of and public trust in the justice system

Priorities of court monitoring

  • To maintain a constructive, rather than adversarial relationship with the justice system
  • To help the justice system reach its potential by identifying shortcomings, recommending practical solutions and advocating for change
  • To communicate and share information with organizations and agencies that provide direct services and advocacy for victims of abuse and assault
  • To recognize and attempt to understand the dilemmas and complexity of the decisions that justice system personnel face
  • To help assure that a balance is achieved between defendant’s rights and the safety of the community; between efficient proceedings and effective outcomes; between swift discipline and compassionate rehabilitation

CASE STUDY: WATCH, a court monitoring program in Minnesota, USA.

WATCH was founded in 1992 with the goal of holding the justice system in Hennepin County, Minnesota, USA, accountable to its core purposes—protecting the public and ensuring victim safety.  The mission of WATCH is to make the courts more effective and responsive in handling cases of violence, particularly against women and children, and to create a more informed and involved public.

The catalyst for WATCH’s founding was the brutal sexual assault and murder of a young Minneapolis, Minnesota woman by a paroled prisoner with an extensive history of sex crimes.  This highly publicized case prompted a group of citizens to meet with representatives of the justice system and women’s advocates to seek solutions.  It was determined that a strong public presence in the courtroom could help hold the justice system more accountable for its actions.  Trained volunteers first entered Hennepin County courtrooms in March 1993, and have been a constant presence ever since.

Courtroom monitoring is WATCH’s primary strategy in creating lasting change in the justice system. Through daily monitoring, WATCH identifies trends and common occurrences that impede justice.  WATCH has identified troublesome patterns such as victim safety concerns being minimized, chronic offenders going through the system without serious consequences, high risk offenders being released without bail, and other symptoms of system failure. When patterns become evident, WATCH undertakes further investigation and research into these problems, and seeks systemic solutions.

WATCH holds the justice system to its highest ideals and challenges it to improve outcomes for victims.  It provides feedback to judges, attorneys and other court personnel; and informs the public about the local criminal justice system.

(History courtesy of WATCH, Minnesota.)

How WATCH court monitoring works:
Court monitors are physically present in the courtroom on a regular basis.  These individuals are volunteers and staff of the monitoring agency who have received training in the criminal and civil justice processes, courtroom decorum and monitoring goals.  They monitor court appearances for cases identified by the monitoring agency.  The regular presence of monitors reminds all justice system personnel, including judges, attorneys, clerks and administrative personnel, that they are accountable to the public and that the public is interested in what happens in the courtroom in cases of violence against women and girls. 

All monitors carry red clipboards so that they will be recognized by court staff.  Monitors are trained to watch for and note such things as the following:  judicial demeanor, the use of inappropriate humor, timeliness, audibility, acknowledgement of and sensitivity toward victims and victim safety, clarity of explanations given by judges and attorneys, and disruptions in the courtroom.  For specific hearings, volunteers are asked to note particular rulings, comments and data that are outlined on monitoring forms tailored to that hearing.

Monitor notes are reviewed by staff, who follow up with appropriate personnel, including judges, attorneys, advocates and probation officers.  This follow-up may be to investigate a case further or to comment on the case, either complimenting a judge or other system personnel or pointing out a problem with the way the case was handled.  Monitoring agency staff may review court records and files to obtain information about individual cases or patterns and trends in the justice system.

Staff may publicize the results of cases through newsletters or through the media to promote public awareness of these cases and their impact on society.

Monitors focus on cases of violence against women.  In many jurisdictions, justice systems have traditionally failed to take crimes of violence against women, such as domestic violence and sexual assault, seriously.  Cases of violence against women and girls are prioritized in order to improve the justice system’s response and thereby promote victim safety and ensure offender accountability.  

Adapted from: Developing a Court Monitoring Program, WATCH, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2000).

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