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Specialist courts

Last edited: January 22, 2019

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Intimate partner violence and child sexual abuse cases in particular can result in multiple actions being taken across both civil and criminal courts.  For example, a perpetrator may be charged with both breaching a restraining order and committing an assault. This, coupled with the fact that intimate partner violence cases form a growing proportion of all crime because of wider reporting, increases the pressure on court processing (Buzawa & Buzawa, 2003).  Concentrating similar cases in a specific and specialist court frees up other courts and can also speed up proceedings, since all matters can be dealt with by a single judge/magistrate.

In some jurisdictions it has been possible to establish specialist courts to deal specifically with violence against women cases.  Such courts are part of a coordinated response to different kinds of violence against women in that they combine both criminal justice and non-criminal justice interventions within a multi-agency response that creates greater survivor safety, and brings perpetrators to account (National Specialist Domestic Violence Courts Steering Group, 2006).  They bring together police, prosecutors, court staff, the probation service and specialist support services for survivors. Typically, specialist courts provide a mechanism for linking survivors and their children with counseling, support and other resources they may need (Buzawa & Buzawa, 2003), often through a referral system. 

Even where a specialist court is infeasible, there is still scope for multi-sectoral and inter-agency cooperation through other mechanisms, including national task forces or roundtables, and the transfer of competencies between courts, to ensure a coordinated and informed approach by the designated court

Specialist family violence courts have existed in parts of Canada and the USA since the 1980s, and there is now a wide network of domestic violence courts in the UK.  Sexual offences courts are less widespread, but some examples can be found in Florida, USA and Kenya. The South African ‘Thuthuzela’ model links one-stop holistic care centres for survivors to dedicated sexual offences courts.

 

Example: One-stop Centres for South Africa’s Survivor’s of Sexual Violence South Africa has created the Thuthuzela Care Centres (TCC) that facilitate multisectoral collaboration between health, police, courts, and social services to provide quality, sensitive treatment for rape survivors. The goals of Thuthuzela Care Centres are to reduce secondary victimization, reduce waiting times and increase conviction rates. The ten centres spread throughout the country provide survivors with a range of services, including: emergency medical care; testing for pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV; post exposure prophylaxis, antiretrovirals, trauma counselling; court preparation, referrals and follow up support. Survivors are entitled to services even if they do not wish to prosecute the perpetrator (Vaz, 2008).  Successful implementation of Thuthuzela Care Centres is ongoing with growing public awareness of the centres.  An analysis of 10 Thuthuzela Care Centres conducted in 2008 found the following challenges: -  staffing shortages; -  a need for increased training; -  inconsistencies in sexual assault management, including HIV testing and      provision of post-exposure prophylaxis; -  limited access to psychosocial counseling; and -  inconsistent survivor follow-up systems. Improvements to the centres include provision of equipment, such as sterilizing machines; increased training for survivors; creating child-friendly spaces; and making Thuthuzela Care Centres more survivor-friendly (Vaz, 2008).

See the brochure developed by the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa.

Read more about the centres and see a list of locations by visiting the UNICEF South Africa website.

 

More recent innovations can be found in Venezuela and Liberia, where there are specialist violence against women courts, and in Spain – where there are 92 exclusive courts to address gender-based violence and 366 shared courts (European Commission, 2010).

Specialist courts should incorporate the following elements:

  • Early access to advocacy and support for victims/survivors;
  • A formal mechanism for coordination with community partners;
  • Victims and Survivor- and child-friendly court facilities;
  • Specialized staff and judges;
  • Processes and protocols for assessing risk/dangerousness;
  • Integrated information systems to facilitate safe information-sharing between involved agencies;
  • Ongoing data collection and evaluation to track, e.g. case volume, legal outcomes, levels of survivor referral to other services and survivor experience of the whole process; and
  • Ongoing training and education for all professionals involved.

Source: Adapted from Creating a Domestic Violence Court: Guidelines and Best Practices (Sack, E., 2002) San Francisco: Family Violence Prevention Fund, available in English.)

See the Justice module Develop and modify court infrastructure section for additional guidance.

Additional resources:

Specialist Domestic Violence Court Programme Resource Manual (National Specialist Domestic Violence Courts Steering Group, 2006), available in English.

Creating a Domestic Violence Court: Guidelines and Best Practices (Sack, E., 2002), San Francisco: Family Violence Prevention Fund. The Family Violence Prevention Fund has created a set of guidelines outlining the necessary components of an effective specialist domestic violence court, which includes three case studies of functioning courts.  Available in English.

 

Case study: Specialist domestic violence courts (England & Wales)

Background

The first specialist domestic violence court (SDVC) in England and Wales was established in Leeds in 1999.  There are currently 141 specialist courts (European Commission, 2010).  The early development of SDVCs occurred against a backdrop of several government consultations and reviews, which identified the need to place survivors at the centre of reform of the legal process in order to close the ‘justice gap’.  Inter-agency coordination was seen as a key means of improving the effectiveness of the legal system in dealing with domestic violence cases.

Programme details

SDVCs are a partnership between the police, prosecutors, magistrates, court staff, the probation service and victim support services and provide a specialized way of dealing with domestic violence cases in magistrates’ courts.  A combination of models has developed, with some courts dedicated uniquely to dealing with domestic violence cases and others operating either a ‘fast track’ system to speed up the processing of cases or a ‘cluster’ system, where only domestic violence cases are heard on certain days.  Most have facilities aimed at improving the court experience for survivors, such as separate entrances and waiting areas, screens and video link for giving confidential testimony.  SDVCs also provide a means for survivors to access support, either through the links they have with a specialist support service or through an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA), a ‘one-stop’ person who provides information about support options and arranges referrals to relevant agencies.  Some IDVAs are located in courts, while others are assigned by police to survivors whose cases are going through the legal process.

Coordination mechanisms

  • Most SDVCs have a specific steering group and some coordinate their work through a domestic violence strategy group.
  • Specialist domestic violence prosecutors.

Outcomes

An evaluation of 23 SDVCs (Her Majesty’s Court Service et al., 2008) found that:

  • 10 had a more than 70% successful prosecution rate, with higher rates in some courts.  This was higher than in non-SDVC courts.
  • Around 6,000 referrals were made to IDVAs, particularly from the police but also from SDVCs.
  • 74% of victim-survivors involved in the court process were supported by IDVAs at court and there were links between this court support and successful prosecutions.
  • 73% of victim-survivors contacted by IDVAs stayed engaged with IDVA services.

SDVCs were most successful in bringing more perpetrators to justice where they had:

  • strong multi-agency partnerships;
  • effective systems for identification of cases;
  • IDVAs to support victims at court;
  • good training and dedicated staff;
  • clustered court listing or a combination of cluster and fast-track court listings;
  • criminal justice perpetrator programmes (Her Majesty’s Court Service et al., 2008). 

Lessons learned

  • Not all SDVC steering groups include all key agencies, with a number lacking involvement of victim/specialist support services, showing the need to ensure representation across all agencies.

Sources: Cook, D., Burton, M., Robinson, A. and Vallely, C. (2004) Evaluation of Specialist Domestic Violence Courts/Fast Track Systems, London: Crown Prosecution Service and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, available in English; Her Majesty's Court Service, Home Office and Criminal Justice Service (2008) Justice with Safety: Specialist Domestic Violence Courts Review 2007-08, London: Home Office, available in English.

 

Case study: Violence against women courts (Venezuela)

Background

The Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence was passed in 2007, which contains definitions and measures relating to 19 forms of violence against women, including the establishment of specialist courts to deal with violence against women cases.  Following the law’s entry into force, there has been a rise in the number of reported cases of violence against women.

Programme details

A total of 41 courts specialising in dealing with cases of violence against women have been created in Venezuela between 2008 and 2011.  Eight of these are in the Metropolitan Area of Caracas, with the rest distributed across the states of Zulia, Lara, Carabobo, Aragua, Trujillo, Bolivar, Nueva Esparta and Monagas.  The courts are staffed by a multi-disciplinary team, including judges and trained judicial personnel, police, public prosecutors and health professionals. Domestic violence and sexual violence are the types of cases that are dealt with most frequently.

Outcomes

  • Courts in the Metropolitan Area of Caracas alone are currently dealing with 10,000 cases, while there are over 150,000 cases nationwide; 53,000 cases have been processed by the courts since 2008.

Source: Agenzia Venezolana de Noticias website, UNHCR website