Court Monitoring Programs

Last updated May 2019

Court monitoring programs—also known as court watch programs—are programs in which advocates or community members are organized to observe court proceedings in a systematic way and to record and make public the results of those observations. The need for court watch programs emerged from the experiences of advocates and victims who observed unprepared or biased judges or prosecutors handling domestic violence cases. Court monitoring programs can enhance a community's response to domestic violence in many ways, including by raising community awareness of domestic violence and highlighting the need for judicial and prosecutor training. Further, those establishing court watch programs long recognized that “having residents and citizens evaluating court proceedings encourages fairness for parties involved in court cases and makes courts accountable to the communities they serve.”[1] Monitoring and documentation can be an important part of prosecution and judicial reform, lobbying, media relations, and community education campaigns.


There are no definitive rules or formulas for the kind of information that a court monitoring program can collect. The laws, structure of the court system, judicial procedures, and available victim resources will ultimately determine what information will be useful to gather. In general, however, there are two kinds of information that a court monitoring program might collect—process data and substance data.

Process data is information about the proceeding itself—i.e., "how" it happened:

  • Did it start on time?
  • Were the defendant and the victim alone in the courtroom at the same time?
  • Could the judge be heard?
  • How did the judge and other courtroom personnel act?
  • Did the judge explain to the victim why and how things would happen?

Substance data, in contrast, is information about "what" happened:

  • Was the defendant released?
  • What conditions, if any, were imposed?
  • Was the order for protection issued?
  • Had there been a significant delay since the last appearance?
  • Did the judge give reasons for decisions?

Working with the Judiciary

In order to be an effective mechanism for changing judicial attitudes regarding and treatment of domestic violence cases, court watch programs must be able to share their findings with judges and other courthouse staff. If court watch programs are part of a larger inter-agency response to domestic violence, communicating observations and data with courts may be part of a larger, streamlined, and more open process. However, courts may not always be receptive to outside input:

Ideally, judges and others who work within the court system will see the value in implementing these changes and will do so without much argument. For others, it may be necessary to have the Chief Justice strongly recommend that these practices be followed.[2]

Victim Safety and Privacy

One of the primary goals of any domestic violence related intervention must be ensuring the safety of domestic violence victims and their children. Court watch programs can help to strike the appropriate balance between protecting victims’ privacy interests while ensuring a more transparent court system in regards to domestic violence cases. Some argue that because domestic violence cases, like juvenile justice cases, are primarily concerned with litigant safety, courtrooms should be similarly closed to the public. The role of court watch programs pushes against this argument, “demonstrate[ing] the positive impact of openness and why too much privacy can often work against effective dispensation of these cases.”[3] It should be noted, however, that in some countries, there are extremely limited circumstances when a courtroom can be closed to the public, particularly in adult criminal court proceedings.

In the interest of victim privacy, however, the openness of domestic violence cases has a limit. For example, court watch volunteers said they would not advocate for webcasts of court proceedings, because despite the potential for greater court oversight, making proceedings available online would jeopardize victim privacy as well as a victim’s willingness to report.[4] Therefore, “the degree of openness must be calibrated to the privacy and safety interests of parties in court,”[5] and as required by the rules, statutes, and respective constitution.

[1] Legal Momentum, A Guide to Court Watching in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cases 2 (2005).

[2] Megan Griest, Monitoring the Law: Court Watch Programs in Maryland, 23 Annals Health L. 74, 84–85 (2014).

[3] Rebecca Hulse, Privacy and Domestic Violence in Court, 16 William & Mary J. Race, Gender, & Social Justice 237, 278 (2010).

[4] Id. In some jurisdictions, the ability to allow any cameras into a courtroom is subject to strict rules and procedures.

[5] Id.