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Last edited: December 20, 2011

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Dedicated courts, or courts that only handle cases of violence against women, have improved general efficiency in prosecution of such cases and have improved the experience of survivors and their families. These courts shorten delays, improve coordination with other justice system actors such as prosecutors and probation officers, and allow judges to become knowledgeable in issues pertinent to violence against women. Dedicated courts are most efficient in urban or centrally located regional areas where there are many cases of violence against women. Some dedicated courts handle only cases of domestic violence, such as the United Kingdom’s Specialist Domestic Violence Court Programme. Others courts, such as those in Spain, hear both criminal and civil cases. South Africa has courts which hear only cases of sexual violence.

South Africa – Sexual Offences Courts

In 1993, South Africa created Sexual Offences Courts to implement an improved response to women and child survivors of sexual assault (Sadan, 2001). The Courts are staffed by police, investigators, prosecutors, social workers, and health care professionals who have been trained in issues of sexual violence. The staff collaborates through all phases of the criminal process to support the victim and to effectively investigate and prosecute the case. Since their creation, conviction rates have risen and the duration of the case, from reporting to conviction, has dropped from 3-5 years to less than 6 months, according to a representative from the National Prosecuting Authority.

See the full assessment in English.

Source: UNICEF. 2010. South Africa: Thuthuzela Care Centres last. acc. April 2010.

Specialized courts can:

  • Expedite cases of violence against women, thus increasing victim safety.
  • Increase expertise by providing opportunities to train the judiciary and court clerks on relevant laws on violence against women and women’s human rights.
  • Increase expertise by providing opportunities to train the judiciary, court clerks, and court officials on gender-based violence issues and sensitivity to survivors including marginalized survivors such as Roma populations.
  • Reduce the re-traumatization of survivors who must testify repeatedly in different courts.
  • Provide a comprehensive strategy for victim services, including specially-trained prosecutors, police, social workers, health professionals, judges, and all court personnel, including court clerks and administrators.
  • Provide continuity of personnel.
  • Potentially increase adjudications, convictions, and justice for victims of violence.
  • Eliminate contradictory orders, such as child custody orders stemming from civil domestic violence cases and criminal domestic violence cases.

Challenges to specialized courts include:

  • Lack of access for rural victims.
  • Lack of resources to support specialized court.
  • Lack of comprehensive services available to survivors at court site.
  • Lack of comprehensive inter-agency service plan for survivor support.

Specialized domestic violence courts in the US were found to provide a number of benefits: more efficient management of cases, more efficient integration of case information, improved victim access to courts, specially-trained intake and court staff, expedited hearings, coordination of victim assistance and offender compliance with specialized prosecution units, improved safety procedures in courtrooms, and more domestic violence training for judges. Judges of specialized domestic violence courts were also more likely to impose stricter sanctions against convicted offenders (Klein, 2009).

An interview with James McCarthy, Judge, Oswego County, New York State, USA
Judge James McCarthy, the first of the New York State dedicated Sex Offense Court judges, has been the presiding judge in the Sex Offense Court since its inception in Oswego County. He shared his thoughts on the model sex offense court and his experience in the first court in New York State. The initial planning and implementation of the Oswego Sex Offense Court saw both challenges and benefits. Below, Judge McCarthy discusses this planning process with the Center for Court Innovation:

Q: What were the specific challenges the Oswego Sex Offense Court faced?
There was resistance because of lack of knowledge. Some have the mistaken concept that the designated sex offense courts somehow de-criminalize sex offenses, when in fact the model is about properly sentencing convicted sex offenders. Defendants that deserve to go to prison go to prison. There are no "breaks" because someone is in the sex offense court.

Q: How have partners contributed and responded to the Oswego Sex Offense Court?
Through the court planning process, it was clear how important it is to get partners involved. The feedback from the probation officers is that in the old days, probation violations could take months to get a disposition. In the sex offense court, if they file a violation on a Monday, there could be a hearing as early as that week. These violations are handled in front of the other defendants and they see what happens when someone violates. The effect is 1000% better. When someone does something they shouldn't, I know about it immediately. Their rights are preserved, the victims are safe, and the court is able to address things appropriately and immediately.

Q: Can you describe some of the benefits of the Oswego Sex Offense Court?
All of these cases are heard by one judge who is trained to deal with the cases and is informed about the dynamics of sex offenders. In addition, the prosecutor, victim advocate, legal service attorneys and court staff are all trained as well, so the partners are mobilized in an efficient manner that allows prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants to appear within 2 weeks for a pre-trial conference. This case processing is a formula that allows for speedy dispositions where the attorneys are informed, the case cannot lag and no one is falling through the cracks. It used to be that delay could be used as a weapon in sex offense cases, but with this court, the defendants, the victims, and the community are all being better served.

It is rare that sex offenders will be incarcerated forever. If sex offenders have families, they may have to live with those families, in their neighborhoods. In order to be productive and comply with conditions of probation, sex offenders must have jobs, make a living and stay away from things that could trigger the offending behavior. All of these things require supervision, constant monitoring and a criminal justice system that can quickly respond to even the most subtle signs.

When sex offenders know that they are being watched and the community knows that the court and probation are keeping a watchful eye on defendants, then it is rare that they will ever get away with something. Hopefully under these circumstances, the sex offender can live somewhere and work somewhere, without being demonized, while still being closely supervised.

Q: What do you see as the future of the sex offense problem solving courts?
I think you will find a sex offender court in every county in New York and every state in this country. Sex offender courts are going to expand because the public wants to see compliance and monitoring by the criminal justice system of sex offenders that are in the community. Once the public realizes what can be done via these courts, I think the model will be established everywhere. All the partners are already there, it just needs to be organized, the partners need to be trained and the expertise needs to be applied.

For an example of a national sex offender registry, see the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website, US Department of Justice.

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Court Innovation, www.courtinnovation.org.


Tools for Specialized Domestic Violence Courts:

Specialist Domestic Violence Court Programme Resource Manual (United Kingdom Home Office et al., 2006). Recommendations and best practices for victim safety in developing dedicated courts as part of a coordinated community response. English.

Creating a Domestic Violence Court: Guidelines and Best Practices (Sack, 2002, USA). Provides guidelines to determine if a domestic violence specialist court is appropriate. Also includes recommended components, court models, and implementation action plans. English.

Requisites Specific to Dedicated Domestic Violence Courts and Dockets (Battered Women’s Justice Project and Consultants, 2003, USA). English.

Pretrial Innovations for Domestic Violence Offenders and Victims: Lessons from the Judicial Oversight Initiative (US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, 2007). Specific guidance for restructuring courts to promote victim safety and offender accountability in domestic violence cases. English.

Specialized Criminal Domestic Violence Courts (Helling) Includes different models for providing a specialized court response to domestic violence. Available in English.


Tools for Establishing a Sexual Offences Court (Reprinted with permission of the Center for Court Innovation New York, USA)

Establishing a Model Court: A Case Study of the Oswego Sex Offense Court (Grant): An in-depth look at the establishment of the first designated sex offense court in New York State. In partnership with the New York State Office of Court Administration, the Center for Court Innovation helped design the specialized sex offense court model to enhance the oversight of offenders and the provision of services to victims.