Judicial Education and Support

last updated May 2019

Throughout the 1990s, studies of judicial attitudes revealed that judges themselves often believed harmful stereotypes and myths about domestic violence, including “that both partners are usually responsible or blameworthy for violence within an intimate relationship; that abusers are not violent, but are just unable to control themselves; and that IPV is a relationship problem not meant for the criminal justice system.”[1] Judicial education on domestic violence has been described as a “critical necessity to establish a fair and trustful arena for the consideration of domestic violence cases.”[2] Past studies found that judges’ individual beliefs about domestic violence have a tremendous role in case outcomes.[3] Judges’ assumptions about the reality of domestic violence “may be quite wrong,” particularly if they are based on stereotypes “rather than a genuine understanding of the nature of such violent victimization.”[4]

In order to better determine the impact of education about the realities of domestic violence—prevalence, risk factors, etc.—researchers based in the U.S. performed an experiment using students as mock judges determining the sentence in a domestic violence case. Half of the participants were provided with a fact sheet about domestic violence in addition to case material while the other half were only provided with case materials. The researchers found significant difference between those who were provided with additional domestic violence information and those who were not:

Members of the experimental group were presented with information about IPV [intimate partner violence], presumably raising their awareness about it. As a result, experimental group members were significantly more likely to state that the mother and child needed protection from the defendant than control group members who had not received information about IPV (30.9% experimental; 15.9% control…). Similarly, 50.9% of experimental group members wrote of the seriousness of IPV and its harmful effects while only 17.1% of control group members cited this reason in support of their sentencing decision…. Strikingly, 27.2% of experimental group members cited the safety and welfare of the child as a reason for their sentence while no member of the control group offered this reason for their sentence…. Finally, a mere 3.6% of the experimental group cited the reason of a boy needing his father in support of their sentencing decision while 20.4% of the control group offered this reason as a sentencing justification….[5]

Cultural Education

Culture plays a critical role in domestic violence adjudication. Judges should be trained to examine culture—both their own and that of others—with the foundational knowledge that culture is multi-faceted and changing:

Critical thinking requires that culture not only has to include the human constructs of race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, sexual orientation, immigration, disability, and all other axes of identification, but also has an analysis of power structures and the historical context of oppression. These categories however, cannot be understood as isolated and discrete from each other but must be examined as they intersect, interlock, and interconnect to produce differences within and between groups. The intersections and interconnections change as the social and political landscape changes.[6]

The way in which judges, victims, and batterers interact with the court system is shaped by the respective culture of each party. Training judges to understand how culture, stereotypes, and ingrained misperceptions informs individuals’ interactions with the system is important, as “an understanding of the cultural context can help the court to shape appropriate access and responses that promote safety, accountability, and the fair administration of justice.”[7] The American Judges Association provided a checklist of specific actions judges can take to understand how their position and experiences inform their view of the case. These include personal actions such as examining their own cultural identity to going through the following steps for all cases:

  • Analyze the facts and circumstances.
  • Assess what you know in general about a particular cultural identity.
  • Identify cultural misinformation that might be disguised as general information.
  • Use specific questions to learn about a victim’s individual cultural experiences.
  • Evaluate a victim’s specific experiences in light of the general information.
  • Remember that culture is never an excuse for criminal behavior….
  • All cultures have forces that both condemn and condone domestic and sexual violence, through laws, social service structures, and community-based programs.[8]

In doing so, judges should also be trained to avoid essentializing cultures, an approach that views “cultures as being distinct and separate, obscuring the reality that all the boundaries between cultures are human constructs and that time and space binds all labels used to demarcate the boundaries.”[9]

[1] Henry F. Fradella & Ryan G. Fischer, Factors Impacting Sentence Severity of Intimate Partner Violence Offenders and Justification for the Types of Sentences Imposed by Mock Judges, 34 L. & Psych. Rev. 25, 29 (2010).

[2] Phyliss Craig-Taylor, Lifting the Veil: The Intersectionality of Ethics, Culture, and Gender Bias in Domestic Violence Cases, 32 Rutgers L. Rev. 31, 37 (2008).

[3] Fradella & Fischer, Factors Impacting Sentence Severity, at 33 (citing Janet Ford et al., Case Outcomes in Domestic Violence Court: Influence of Judges, 77 Psychol. Rep. 587, 592-93 (1995)).

[4] Id. at 33–34 (citing Joan E. Crowley, Robert T. Sigler & Ida M. Johnson, Variations Across Agency Types in Perceptions of Seriousness of Family Abuse, 18 J. Crim. Just. 519, 529 (1990)).

[5] Id. at 42–43.

[6] Sujata Warrier, “It’s in their Culture”: Fairness and Cultural Considerations in Domestic Violence, 46 Fam. Ct. Rev. 537, 540 (2008).

[7] Am. Judges Ass’n, Domestic Violence & The Courtroom: Knowing the Issues… Understanding the Victim 8 (2012).

[8] Id. at 9–10.

[9] Warrier, supra note 6, at 539.