Court in the conflict

Domestic violence is a crime but bringing perpetrators to justice has proved difficult. However, fast-track domestic violence courts are helping to change that. Graham Hopkins reports

Jennifer Shaw,* 29, was beaten about the face and head by her husband with a riding crop – in front of her two children. She had regularly suffered at his alcohol-soaked fists but this was the last straw. She went to the police. Her husband was arrested and a case brought against him.

But it took nearly three months to get a court date, by which time her husband had been bailed and had returned home. Partly through intimidation and his promising to change, Jennifer retracted her statement.

Two months later she was hospitalised. She had been pushed through the conservatory door. Her husband hadn’t changed.

If people such as Jennifer are to be protected effectively the criminal justice system needs to change too. However, not least through the introduction of specialist “fast track” domestic violence courts, it is making promising progress.

There are seven such courts in England. One of them, in Derby in the East Midlands, began in May 2003. “Our domestic violence partnership believed we needed a court similar to the original ones in Gwent and Croydon,” says Nina Akhter, domestic violence co-ordinator, Derby Community Safety Partnership. “I got together with Neville Whitton, area domestic violence co-ordinator at the Crown Prosecution Service, and found on average there were 16 domestic violence cases a week. But they were at different courts with different magistrates and people and so on.”

Akhter and Whitton reported their findings. “We also said that this was something that the government was looking at. But we shouldn’t wait, we should be taking the lead and running with it,” she says.

Derby has a reputation as a pioneer in tackling domestic violence – there are four refuges in the city. It became one of five new national pilots. One of the first tasks was to ensure that there were domestic violence specialists throughout the process – including police, prosecutors and magistrates.

“We developed and delivered an awareness training programme – which is now an ongoing part of a magistrate’s induction,” says Akhter. “It was crucial that magistrates understood the cycles of abuse. We wanted them to realise why victims often retracted their statements before getting to court. They might be intimidated to retract, or lack confidence in the criminal justice system or fear possible repercussions; and to understand why women who withdraw might come back again.”

Not that victims or survivors are exclusively female. “Our last two-month statistics show that 89 per cent of offenders were male and 11 per cent female,” says Akhter.

It was also crucial to encourage appropriate and relevant sentencing. Says Akhter: “This is a big fear for victims and survivors: ‘what if we go to court and nothing happens?’ We have had cases in the past where judges would make statements such as ‘her nagging was a contributory factor in him assaulting her’. But we had a judge and a couple of magistrates keenly interested in domestic violence – and having those champions really helped us.”

As has having the court advocacy co-ordinator. “Georgina Fowler’s role is to support victims and survivors through the court process, even post-sentence – providing options and safety plans, letting them know who is available to help and support,” says Akhter. “Ultimately we want to give them confidence not to retract.” Figures from December 2005 show that victims withdrew in half of the 48 cases.

The court sat every Wednesday afternoon to begin with. It now sits six half-days a month.

Results are encouraging. Up to December 2005 there was a 3.6 per cent decrease in repeat victimisation and a 7.3 per cent increase in reporting. And crimes resulting in court action rose from 9.1 per cent in 2004 to 33.36 per cent in 2005. Successful prosecutions have increased almost three-fold.

Such successes, also mirrored in the other pilots, have led to the government’s specialist domestic violence court programme with 18 more courts set to open. “This is not just about the practice of courts and their procedures,” says John Dunworth, head of domestic violence at the Home Office. “It is also not just about the physical location of a courthouse, or about tangible changes being made to an existing courthouse. It is about an approach which situates the court system, and the criminal justice system as part of a community wide response to domestic violence.”

For Akhter, the key is effective multi-agency working. “The court is an excellent idea – we are seeing fewer retractions,

and increases in reporting and prosecutions. But importantly all agencies are talking to each other. We are giving out the same messages – and that is a really positive feeling.”

*Not her real name

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