Court Monitoring Underway in Burgas, Bulgaria
Monday, June 13, 2005 2:45 PM

Contributed by Liliya Sazonova, National VAW Monitor for Bulgaria

A "Public Observations in the Court to Monitor Cases Involving Domestic Violence" Project is being carried out by the Association Demetra in Burgas. The Court in Burgas is cooperating with the project which has assistance from the Open Society Institute. The ambition of the organized court monitoring program is to achieve a constant change in the justice system as well as to support equality between women and men in compliance with the European Union standards. The objectives of the project are to investigate the problems in the justice system and to make recommendations assisting its work with victims of domestic violence as well as to raise community awareness about the issue of domestic violence.

Association Demetra sends trained volunteers into the courtrooms in the Regional Court in Burgas with the aim to monitor and document statements, behavior, and attitudes in cases involving domestic violence. The 10 volunteers either graduated Law this year or are last year students in Law at the Free University in Burgas. They have red clipboards and badges indicating their names and that they are volunteers. Their mission is to provide a public presence in the courtroom and note objectively observable behaviors by justice system personnel. The volunteers all participated in a two day training on the principals and logistics of monitoring court cases involving violence against women led by The Advocates Women’s Project Director Cheryl Thomas, Marna Anderson, Director of WATCH, and Judge Kathryn L. Quaintance, Hennepin County District Court Judge, in Sofia in November 2004. The training was part of the Open Society Institute’s project to establish a court monitoring program in Bulgaria. The training provided by The Advocates was followed by additional local training.

Within the project’s framework a pilot newsletter called Public Observer informing on the monitoring process in the courtrooms has been issued. This method of empowering civil society to monitor the work of the justice system is new for the Bulgarian settings and is after the long-lasting and successful experience of two International non-governmental organizations - The Advocates for Human Rights and Watch.

Volunteer’s reflections on their work are published in the newsletter. Plamena who has observed 6 cases involving domestic violence discusses that people in Bulgaria decide to submit a request to the Court only as a last resort and in dead-locked situations. In this line of reasoning, Maya Vurbanova comments that victims usually prefer to undertake divorce proceedings instead of bringing a charge against the perpetrators. However, the divorce does not always eliminate the physical and psychological harassment. For instance, Maya monitored a case where a couple got divorced in 2003 but the perpetrator forced the victim to continue living with him in the same home and he treated her even worse after they broke up. Maria Gudzheva points out that in most of the cases women who are victims of domestic violence decide to divorce long after they have been physically, psychically, and morally exhausted and humiliated. She considers that the reasons for their passive behavior are a result either from their ignorance about the opportunities they have, or from their fear of the perpetrators, from their shame to make their case public, or just because they have no other choice.

The first step of the Demetra's court monitoring strategy refers to the provision of a consistent public presence in the courtroom realized by the volunteers who observe and collect data on cases involving domestic violence. This public presence in the courtroom holds the system accountable for its actions and reminds to the advocates, prosecutors, judges, legislators, etc. that the public is interested and informed on what is going on there. The next phase is to undertake further investigation and research into these cases and to analyze the existing problems, if any. After completing the reports of this research, Association Demetra disseminates them to criminal justice personnel, upon request. The court-monitoring organization’s staff makes the results from the observation public through the media and through periodic newsletters in order to inform society and to make the Court procedures more visible. Association Demetra puts the accent on violence against children and women cases because they have not been seriously taken into account by the Courts in Bulgaria in the past years. By the monitoring programs the organization aims to increase public intolerance against the perpetrators of this kind of crimes, to make the justice system more effective and responsive in handling cases of violence and thus to promote a safer world for the victims of violence and just remedy for the perpetrators.