Domestic abuse courts: report

This report examines the effectiveness of Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts (IDACs) that use a ‘One Family, One Judge’ model.

Commonalities of IDACs across international jurisdictions

This section examines the commonalities across the identified IDAC models. First, there are similarities in the context in which IDACS have been introduced across jurisdictions. Second, the desired outcomes of IDACs are consistent across different courts.

The Introduction of IDACs

The necessary preconditions for the establishment of IDACs vary significantly across jurisdictions, however there were some identifiable generalisations, as follows:

New court models are often implemented by grassroots-level actors working within the justice system, usually members of the judiciary

In the majority of jurisdictions the introduction of IDACs has evolved as an organic response to challenges posed by the traditional justice system. These challenges have tended to be recognised and addressed by 'grassroots' actors working in the justice system. The need for a driving force at the grassroots level was emphasised by key informants during interview. Birnbaum stated "in order for this thing to work you really need the foot soldiers: people on the ground, people to help the court in its work".[23] The New York courts were spearheaded by a small number of judges who set out to change the approach of the New York court system.[24]

An identified commonality across US and Canada is that judges have tended to be the driving force behind IDACs. In his analysis of the Vermont IDVC, Judge Suntag stated "the judge has to be the leader: judicial leadership is significant". IDACs have been championed and implemented by individual judges within summary-procedure courts, although it should be noted their motivations have differed. The government's involvement in these courts has been limited to grant funding as part of Violence Against Women initiatives (New York, Vermont and Toronto), funding and authorising the allocation of prosecution resources (New York and Toronto respectively) and identifying eligible cases for the IDAC (Toronto).

The lead actors in England were different. The introduction of the IDVC was managed by a multi-agency group hosted at the Magistrates Court. Following a period of consultation and research at local and national government level, the implementation was ultimately overseen by two specially appointed project managers within HMCS.[25]

Interest and political will for IDACs depends on specific local contexts and circumstances

Croydon was a leader in innovative judicial approaches and domestic abuse was high on the political agenda at the time of its establishment. As noted above, it was established in the context of the Home Office's (2003) Safety and Justice report, which focused heavily on the interface between criminal and civil court in cases of domestic abuse.[26]

There has been a focus on domestic abuse and the silo systems of the criminal and family justice systems in Canada since the early 2000s. The political environment underpinning the introduction of the Ontario IDVC was influenced by a high profile case in which a child, Jared Osidacz, was murdered by his father during a court-ordered parental visit in 2006. The child's father was subject to a criminal court order to stay away from his ex-partner, the child's mother, but was allowed unsupervised weekend access to his son following a family court order. Media interest and a coroner's inquest following the incident drew public and political attention to the poor interface between the family and criminal courts.

In Vermont, Judge Suntag was aware of a need to secure political buy-in from stakeholders for the court, particularly from District Attorneys (DAs), who are elected in the State, thus their involvement required to be considered as politically popular. Judge Suntag understood that the IDVC was perceived as being "soft on crime". He therefore implemented a system whereby offenders who violated the terms of their probation would be returned to court immediately, thereby securing buy-in from the police and DA as this was considered a robust system.

Pre-established specialised domestic violence courts are common across jurisdictions that introduce IDACs

Jurisdictions that introduce IDACs tend to have already institutionalised some provisions to address domestic abuse within the criminal justice system. The Croydon IDVC was seen as the "logical extension" to the already-existing SDVC, in a further attempt to bring better outcomes (higher conviction rates, offender accountability and improved victim safety) in domestic violence cases.[27]

In Vermont, the IDVC was also an extension of the existing SDVC. Relevant family law cases were entered into the existing criminal SDVC to schedule the processes together.

In New York, and the USA more widely, there was an existing tradition of family courts of various forms, including versions of SDVCs.

SDVCs have been established in a number of Canadian provinces for some time. Ontario introduced SDVCs across the province from the mid-1990s onwards. Similar to the Scottish model, these courts heard criminal matters related to domestic abuse. .

The desires outcomes of IDACs

The second commonality across IDAC models is the desired outcomes of the court, which have been identified as follows:

IDACs aim to address the challenges of the traditional court system

The desire to avoid the 'silo approach' of the civil and criminal processes was an overarching theme in literature on IDACs and was experienced in all studied jurisdictions.[28] A review of the available literature identified the following challenges posed by the traditional two-court system:

  • Conflicting court orders;[29]
  • Increased risks for women and children due to the fragmentation of the court system;[30]
  • Poor judicial information-sharing and poorly-informed decision-making;[31]
  • Poorly trained court staff (including the judiciary);[32]
  • Slow response by the courts to domestic abuse and family matters;
  • Appropriate family support services are not available;[33]
  • A lack of coordination in the community response to domestic abuse[34]

Different jurisdictions emphasised the challenges of the two court system differently according to their specific context. In England and New York in particular, there was also an emphasis on the inefficiency of the court system and the associated cost of repeated court appearances for the same family.[35]

In Canada, there was a widespread recognition that poor communication between the courts exposed women and children to further violence, and also resulted in inconsistent orders and increased costs to the courts due to additional appearances.[36]

Vermont is a unique case. The concept of the integrated court was designed and managed by a single judge and its implementation was something of a personal project.[37] Judge Suntag had 28 years' experience as a civil and criminal judge and had a particular interest in both domestic abuse and procedural fairness. He considered judicial approach as integral to the court's effectiveness. He stated: "in terms of the courtroom, how a judge behaves in the courtroom and interacts with the people in it may be the most crucial part of how people respond". These interests, coupled with his observations of the shortfalls of the traditional court system motivated him to champion the introduction of the IDAC.[38]

Despite the differences between IDAC models, the desired outcomes are relatively consistent across the jurisdictions

In broad terms, the goals of IDACs are identified consistently across jurisdictions as improved victim safety, improved offender accountability and more efficient use of court time and resources. Specifically the desired outcomes are identified in the literature as:

  • A coordinated response to improve victim safety and offender accountability via involvement of other services; deferred sentences to allow for offender-management programmes to be completed, and a more holistic oversight of rehabilitation;[39]
  • Victim advocacy and support;[40]
  • Efficiency, in terms of quicker outcomes, less appearances/days at court;[41]
  • An improved approach to the complex/unique criminal nature of domestic abuse;[42]
  • Specially-trained staff (prosecutors, solicitors, judges, clerks).[43]



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