Forensic Medical Systems
last updated February 1, 2006

Domestic violence victims seeking access to court systems worldwide are finding that one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome lies in a procedural or evidentiary requirement common to many legal systems—the medical legal certificate issued by government institutes of forensic medicine. In many countries, battered women are required to obtain this certificate documenting their injuries before they can proceed in court.

In the CEE/FSU region, access to court systems either requires or heavily depends on formal forensic medical certificates to prove domestic violence. Generally, according to this system, forensic doctors examine a woman and document her injuries with a certificate. The certificate indicates the seriousness of the injury and the corresponding category of assault that can be prosecuted. From Cheryl Thomas, Domestic Violence, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 219, 225 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds., 1999).

Research reveals many problems with the forensic medical system as it currently exists. The categories of assault do not always provide an accurate description of the level of injury. For example, forensic reports do not consider the impact of repeated injuries over a period of time, the appropriate measure of psychological injury, or the possibility that the severity of the injury may not be fully recognizable at the time of the examination. In addition, few forensic doctors receive any training on how work with domestic violence victims. Some go beyond documenting the injury and inquire into the circumstances of the injury. The doctors will use their personal notion of fairness and take into account mitigating circumstances when filling out the certificates. In some cases, forensic doctors may determine that a woman provoked an attack and grade her injuries at a lower level. As a result, the case is essentially adjudicated by medical rather than legal professionals and a woman may be precluded from state prosecution of her claim.

For example, in a case in Romania, a forensic certificate graded the injuries at a level requiring fourteen days to heal, despite the fact that the injuries the woman sustained included a broken leg. When asked about the file, the judge explained that the doctor's evaluation "may be affected by what he or she views as mitigating circumstances, such as the victim's state of intoxication, whether the doctor feels the abuse was provoked, self-defense, etc." The consequence of grading the injury at a lower level in this case was that the woman was left to prosecute her case on her own without the assistance of the state. From MAHR, Lifting the Last Curtain: A Report on Domestic Violence in Romania 12 n.41 (1995). In some countries such as Moldova, Ukraine and Macedonia, the certificates can cost women the equivalent of a month's salary.

In Poland, several forensic doctors expressed extreme skepticism of women victims of violence. They said that they viewed their first responsibility as determining whether the injuries could have been caused in the manner the victim described. They expressed the opinion that a woman would lie to achieve an advantage in a court case. Although none of the doctors interviewed in Poland identified cases in which women lied, they universally expressed mistrust of women. From MAHR, Domestic Violence in Poland 36 (2002).


For recommendations on the submission of evidence for domestic violence cases, see Section 7.H the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women".  For the Russian version of the report recommendations, click here.