Specialized Domestic Violence Court Systems

Last updated May 2019

The justice system throughout the world has a long history of minimizing or outright ignoring the claims of domestic violence victims. Judges, prosecutors, and police officers alike failed to provide domestic violence cases with adequate attention. In the U.S., stories emerged of judges who would not grant women restraining orders unless they simultaneously filed for divorce and judges who would not punish men who violated restraining orders.[1] In the wake of law enforcement and prosecutorial reform, but before the advent of specialized domestic violence courts, prosecutors complained about the futility of prosecuting batterers if judges failed to follow through on sentencing.[2] In response, judges often claimed that the fault laid with victims who failed to follow up on temporary restraining orders.[3] Moreover, judges and prosecutors shared an increasing frustration with seeing the same offenders appear in court time after time.[4]

Specialized domestic violence court systems emerged in this context, although the shape and exact role of each system varied among jurisdictions:

Whether to provide a more intensive focus on the unique problems posed by domestic violence cases, to enforce new domestic violence laws with a consistent approach, or to cope more efficiently with the ballooning case volume, the results provided a number of reasons to handle domestic violence cases in a specialized courtroom.[5]

While domestic violence court systems “reflect neither unified origins nor a unified approach, but they do share common goals,”[6] particularly offender accountability and victim safety, they can therefore be discussed somewhat generally.

The Center for Court Innovation describes domestic violence court as “specialized court[s] that provide[] comprehensive judicial monitoring of domestic violence offenders and frontloads services to victims...[which] may be particularly helpful in communities where there has traditionally been a lack of involvement by the court in the coordinated community response for victims.”[7] All domestic violence court systems—regardless of form or origin—should have the same core goals of “victim safety and [perpetrator] accountability; informed judicial decision-making;…efficient case processing; and a concentration of social services.”[8]

Judges and prosecutors who consistently deal with domestic violence cases will see repeat offenders. Being able to properly respond to each case of domestic violence requires having a detailed background about the offender and his history to formulate the system’s response to the offense before them to ensure victim safety and offender accountability. A dedicated court—or dedicated and trained personnel—ensures that offenses are prosecuted by the same prosecutors, that the cases are heard before the same judges, and that the offenders are supervised on probation by the same probation officers.  Offenders know that if they batter again, they are likely to appear before the same judge or with the same prosecutor, where they are less able to minimize or deny the violence and evade accountability.

Participants on Domestic Violence Court Systems

One of the primary goals of many domestic violence court systems is to improve coordination between various sectors taking into account the stakeholders who are critical to a well-functioning system.

Domestic Violence Advocates

Domestic violence advocates are key to ensuring that domestic violence courts best serve the needs of victims and to assist victims throughout the court process. Victims should have immediate access to a confidential advocate.[9] One important goal of a domestic violence court is to accelerate the criminal system and advocates are essential to explain how the court operates and to ensure victim safety throughout the court process. Although many prosecutor’s offices provide advocacy services for victims of criminal offenses, in domestic violence offenses, it is critical that a confidential advocate be available.  The confidentiality that advocates can offer ensures that the victim can provide and receive information that will not be shared without her consent.  Confidentiality best protects victims’ safety.

Case Coordinators

Case coordinators work with the court in order to ensure the domestic violence cases are properly identified and transferred to the specialized domestic violence court system.[10] Additionally, case coordinators work with other systems actors to coordinate referrals, ensuring that victims and their children are able to access the highest quality care possible. In order to best serve in this role, it is useful for the case coordinator to have a background in victim advocacy.

Types of Domestic Violence Court Systems

It is important to note that while domestic violence court systems emerged to address similar needs across communities, they have taken a variety of forms, often known by different names. These include integrated court systems, civil court systems, and criminal court systems.[11] This means that although two courts system may both be domestic violence court systems, they may operate differently and have distinct jurisdictions.

Integrated Domestic Violence Court System

An integrated domestic violence (IDV) court system is a system in which a single family is seen by one judge who handles the entirety of that family’s domestic violence case, regardless of jurisdiction.[12] The judges presiding over these cases can address criminal law (which may include both felony and misdemeanor chargers), civil orders for protection, family law (such as divorce and custody issues), and child protective matters.[13] While an IDV court may have a sweeping jurisdiction over all pertinent issues, it is possible for a court to address at least two different areas and still be an IDV court. IDV courts are designed primarily to promote “consistent handling of all matters involving the same family.”[14]

There are, however, several arguments against IDV courts. Depending on the legal system, there may be defendant's rights issues connected with the use of information from one proceeding in another matter.[15] Opponents also argue that judges or prosecutors in combined courts may bargain away criminal penalties in exchange for the defendant's cooperation in civil proceedings (i.e., an agreement about custody or child support). Finally, opponents worry that victims will be required to cooperate with criminal prosecutions in order to gain civil relief, a requirement that raises the same autonomy concerns generated by mandatory prosecution.

Criminal Domestic Violence Court System

While the timing of when a case may appear before a criminal domestic violence court varies—before or after initial court appearance—all criminal domestic violence courts should have specially trained judges who consider all relevant criminal issues, including “criminal orders of protection for victims and bail conditions, sentences, treatment mandates, and sanctions for re-offending perpetrators.”[16]  Prosecutors, defense attorneys, court personnel, and probation officers appearing in specialized domestic violence courts should also be dedicated staff with specialized training.

Civil Domestic Violence Court System

Specialized civil domestic violence court systems can fill the gaps left by domestic violence criminal justice reform. Their dockets can include family law issues, such as custody issues and divorce, as well as civil law protections such as orders for protection. These court systems can adopt numerous strategies, including “develop[ing] policies to coordinate protective orders with criminal domestic violence/sexual assault cases, implement[ing] firearm protections, and increas[ing] interaction with supervised visitation and exchange programs.”[17]

[1] Anat Maytal, Specialized Domestic Violence Courts: Are They Worth the Trouble in Massachusetts?, 18 Pub. Interest L. J. 197, 201 (2008).

[2] Id. at 207.

[3] Id.

[4] Robyn Mazur & Liberty Aldrich, What Makes Domestic Violence Courts Work?: Lessons from New York, 42 Judges J. 5, 5 (2003).

[5] Melissa Labriola, Sarah Bradley, Chris S. O’Sullivan, Michael Rempel, & Sarah Moore, A National Portrait of Domestic Violence Courts 2 (2010).

[6] Id. 3.

[7] Center for Court Innovation, Creating a Domestic Violence Court: Adapting the Model to Your Community 7 (2014).

[8] Center for Court Innovation, Integrated Domestic Violence Courts: Key Principles 1 (2011); Center for Court Innovation, Criminal Domestic Violence Courts: Key Principles 1 (2011); Center for Court Innovation, Civil Domestic Violence Courts: Key Principles 1 (2011).

[9] Mazur & Aldrich, What Makes Domestic Violence Courts Work?, supra note 4, at 7.

[10] Center for Court Innovation, Case Coordinators in Domestic Violence Courts: Five Key Roles 1 (2011).

[11] Center for Court Innovation, Creating a Domestic Violence Court, supra note 7, at 8–9.

[12] Id. at 8.

[13] Id.

[14] Center for Court Innovation, Integrated Domestic Violence Courts: Key Principles 1 (2011).

[15] Labriola et al, A National Portrait of Domestic Violence Courts, supra note 5, at 69.

[16] Center for Court Innovation, Criminal Domestic Violence Courts: Key Principles 1 (2011).

[17] Center for Court Innovation, Civil Domestic Violence Courts: Key Principles 1 (2011).