Role of the Judiciary
last updated February 1, 2006

Like prosecutors and police officers, judges play important roles in the legal system's response to domestic violence. Because they are generally the final authority in civil and criminal matters involving domestic abuse, judges hold substantial power to sanction batterers, protect battered women, and to send messages to the community, the victim, and the batterer alike that domestic violence will not be tolerated.

Although prosecutors in countries in CEE/FSU often have considerable control over the initiation and course of criminal proceedings, to the extent judges are able to make choices regarding sentencing or other aspects of the criminal trial, these choices may be influenced by myths about domestic violence. If, for example, judges believe that alcoholism causes domestic violence, for example, they may only require batterers to attend alcohol treatment programs. Judges may not understand that battered women are most vulnerable when they attempt to leave a relationship and therefore may fail to take steps to ensure that women are protected inside and outside of the courtroom.

Judicial responses to domestic violence can, however, further victim safety and batterer accountability in many ways. In the courtroom, judges are enforcers and interpreters of existing laws; they may also have the ability to establish courtroom policies and procedures that promote victim safety and are respectful of all parties. In Great Britain, for example, the Court Service is creating a model layout that must be followed for all new courts that includes "a segregated hearing suite and a dedicated area for children." From Domestic Violence: Break the Chain, Multi-Agency Guidance for Addressing Domestic Violence, Home Office, 2.b.i.2. Outside of the courtroom, judges are often community leaders, and can play vital roles in the effort to eliminate domestic violence.

Advocates can work to improve judicial responses to domestic violence in a number of ways. Court monitoring, for example, helps to systematically identify needed improvement in judicial responses and also increase the visibility of these issues; the presence of monitors in courtrooms can itself cause judges to improve their handling of domestic violence cases. Trainings for judges can provide judges with the information they need to better address the needs of battered women and ensure batterer accountability. Finally, dedicated courts and court processes can also help ensure batterer accountability and victim protection by streamlining navigation of the court system, increasing victims' access to resources, and ensuring a greater expertise of the judges and other personnel addressing these issues. See the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women" for recommendations on creating legislation on violence against women, including specialized courts (Section 2.H), investigation and legal proceedings (Section 7), and sentencing (Section 9). For the Russian version of the report recommendations, click here.

For a list of research and reports on domestic violence and the judiciary, click here.