Domestic Violence Courts

Domestic violence courts (DVCs) are specialized court settings that deal predominantly with cases involving domestic violence. They have emerged in different state, regional, and national contexts, giving rise to different operational styles and models. For example, courts may sit full or part-time and deal with different levels of offense seriousness and all or various aspects of case progression (pretrial review hearings, trials, sentencing and/or monitoring of offenders). Regardless of the operational style, the philosophy guiding these courts is that domestic violence is a crime that poses particular difficulties for both the victim and the criminal justice system; therefore, a specialized method of dealing with these cases is necessary. This research paper describes the operation of DVCs in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It establishes the defining features of these courts and reviews the research relating to how specialization has changed their processes, outcomes, and overall effectiveness.

Domestic Violence Courts in the United States

Court specialization in the United States is grounded in “problem-solving” or “therapeutic” approaches to domestic violence. The problem-solving approach provided impetus for the development of the first specialist courts in Florida. The courts were believed to increase efficiency, and most criminal justice practitioners felt that the judicial and prosecutorial expertise resulting from specialization had a positive effect on the system for handling cases and helped reduce recidivism. Specialist courts also began to be developed in New York, initially based on the criminal “cluster court” model, whereby criminal cases involving domes-tic violence matters are assigned to a dedicated session for domestic violence cases only. The dedicated listing of cases facilitates the allocation of specialist judges and prosecutors and independent advocacy support for victims. The involvement of advocates was found to enhance the quality of information available to the prosecution and increase the likelihood of victims remaining committed to the prosecution. Some courts in New York progressed from the criminal cluster court model to a combined civil/criminal model, realizing the benefits of the latter, in particular for ensuring judicial consistency in relation to all orders. For example, having a divorce proceeding and a criminal assault case heard in a combined court would promote the ideal of “one family, one judge.” While the development of DVCs can be driven primarily by system needs such as effective case management and efficient use of resources, other key objectives include increasing victim safety and perpetrator accountability. Practitioners feel that these courts are more responsive to victims’ needs and provide improved enforcement and better services for perpetrators.

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By the late 1990s, a plethora of DVCs were in operation in the United States, and various attempts were made to compare them with a view to identifying good practice. One such review was undertaken by the National Center for State Courts, which estimated that there were more than 300 courts with some specialized court structures, processes, or practices distinct to domestic violence in the United States; however, the review found much variation in court processes and a lack of systematic evidence of their benefits. The report identified cultural and organizational problems that hindered the development of DVCs. Other concerns included the views that the pursuit of efficiency may result in “assembly-line justice” and that the promotion of information sharing may be detrimental to victims in some cases (e.g., where custody issues were involved). But the benefits of specialization were clear, in terms of increased judicial understanding of domestic violence issues, perpetrator accountability, and more comprehensive support provided to victims.

The core “components” of effective DVCs were identified from the review. These include advocacy services for information exchange between the victim and the court, the coordination of partner agencies, environments that offer security and comfort to victims and children, specialist court personnel who receive ongoing training, evenhanded treatment of both parties and a serious tone to indicate that domestic violence is being treated seriously, integrated information systems for sharing and accessing information, evaluation and accountability of court processes and outcomes, protocols for risk assessment compliance, monitoring of defendants with court orders, and sentencing that is consistent and promotes the accountability of domestic violence offenders.

Domestic Violence Courts in Canada

In Canada, a number of multi-agency approaches to domestic violence have been promoted. In Ontario, the impetus for an improved judicial response to domestic violence came from a domestic homicide review following the killing in 1996 of Arlene May, a mother of five, by her former boyfriend. The new court that was subsequently established was evaluated by the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto, which concluded that specialized courts do make a difference. For example, men sent to the perpetrator program from the DVC had a lower breach rate than men sent via other routes. The court, established in Winnipeg in 1990, deals with intimate partner violence as well as other forms of abuse. Evaluations of this court demonstrated that it was successful in reducing the time taken to process cases and bringing about more appropriate sentencing. Prior to specialization, the most frequent sentences were conditional discharge, suspended sentences, and probation: Imprisonment was rare. In the 2 years after specialization, the most frequent sentences were probation, suspended sentences, and imprisonment. The review of Canadian initiatives to challenge violence against women concluded that “specialization has become the key to effective system reform.”

Domestic Violence Courts in the United Kingdom

The introduction of specialist courts in the United Kingdom has been relatively recent, as the first was established in Leeds in 1999. The basic features of DVCs operating in England and Wales include focusing on criminal (not civil) matters heard in Magistrates’ Courts, dealing mainly with pretrial hearings rather than trials, identifying domestic violence cases and thereafter either “clustering” or “fast-tracking” them, having an advocate present to support victims, having a specialist police officer present to provide information to the court, and relying on multi-agency partnerships. These courts attempt to achieve a variety of aims: increase the effectiveness of court systems in providing protection and support to victims and imposing appropriate sanctions on offenders; enhance the coordination of criminal justice, public, voluntary, and community sector agencies in working with victims and offenders; reduce delays in the processing of cases; and reduce the rates of revictimization.

In 2006, the Home Office announced its national domestic violence plan, which has a tripartite structure, including “one-stop-shops” to provide a range of advocacy and support services for victims, specialized courts, and multi-agency responses for very-high-risk victims. This plan capitalizes on local innovation and documented evidence that such approaches can make a positive difference in the lives of victims and their children. Other recent national developments include new guidance for the police in investigating domestic violence, a revised prosecution policy published by the Crown Prosecution Service, and a joint national training program for the police and prosecutors. In addition, the government provided £2 million to underpin a new national training and accreditation program for independent domestic violence advisors (IDVAs), beginning in 2005. The support, information, and advocacy provided by IDVAs to victims were found to be crucial in the success of DVCs. The Home Office plans to have 50 DVCs operational by the end of 2007. Documented benefits include reducing the number of cases lost before trial, increasing the number of defendants pleading guilty or being convicted after trial, and providing advocacy for and increasing the confidence of victims.

To summarize, research on DVCs in England and Wales has found that these courts act as a beacon of good practice in terms of victim-centered justice, enhance victim satisfaction, send a message to the victim that she is being heard, send a message to the offender that domestic violence will not be tolerated and that the offense is taken seriously, increase public confidence in the criminal justice system, provide a catalyst for multi-agency working, and promote the coordination of efforts to support the victim.

Case Progression in Domestic Violence Courts

Understanding the strengths and limitations of DVCs needs to be set not only in the local and national contexts within which these courts are embedded but also in the context of the dynamics of domestic violence itself, which is multi-faceted (incorporating emotional and psychological abuse as well as crimes of violence and/or sexual abuse). Research has shown that, understandably, victims are often reluctant to be witnesses in court for a range of reasons: fear and intimidation; frustration with the complexity and lengthiness of the court process; concerns over housing, welfare, and immigration status; and their own relationship with the defendant and his with any of their children. It is therefore important to remember what a difficult decision a victim faces when determining whether to participate in a criminal justice case against someone with whom she has been, or may continue to be, in an intimate relationship.

Research shows that domestic violence cases tend to progress through the criminal justice system differently than comparable cases without a domestic context. In an early study on British prosecution practices, compared with non-domestic-violence cases, more domestic violence cases were not prosecuted, and when they were, more defendants were found not guilty. The impetus for developing DVCs emerged from these failures. Therefore, one of the main aims of DVCs is to reduce attrition of domestic violence cases, and the available evidence suggests that case progression is different when it occurs in DVCs. For example, a study of more than 4,000 defendants processed by a DVC in Memphis concluded that “prosecution was the norm rather than the exception” as prosecutors proceeded in 80% of cases and more than two thirds of the defendants pleaded guilty, were found guilty, or were placed on diversion. British statistics show that conviction rates in DVCs are higher than in other courts: 71% compared with 59%.

Case progression in domestic violence cases is problematic because of the important role ascribed to victim participation: There is a well-documented and pronounced relationship between victim participation and the successful resolution of these cases. Even within DVCs, victim participation remains a crucial determinant of case outcomes. A recent study of a DVC in Toronto found that prosecutors were seven times more likely to prosecute a case when victims were perceived to be cooperative. In a study of five British DVCs, it was found that even with the support provided to victims by advocates, half the victims still chose to retract. Thus, case progression in DVCs still depends in large part on the perceived wishes or credibility of the victim as a prosecution witness.

Sentencing in Domestic Violence Courts

In the United States, the most common sanction for convicted domestic violence offenders is probation with all or part of a jail sentence suspended. In the United Kingdom, a recent report on several demonstration projects aimed at reducing domestic violence found that sentencing practices varied considerably. For example, the use of custodial sentences for convicted defendants ranged from 11% to 50%.

Sentencing practices are expected to differ when courts are specialized. An evaluation of six U.S. sites found the benefit to be more consistent sentencing, with the added value of incorporating advocacy for victims into the court process. The specialization of drug and domestic violence courts in West Yorkshire (where the first domestic violence court was established in Leeds) was noted to offer the possibility of providing justice with a greater focus on rehabilitation and integration of the offender into the community.

Although the aim of sentencing in DVCs is to “promote accountability from domestic violence offenders,” it is unclear what specific penalties might best achieve this. A short prison sentence might be the best deterrent for one offender, but a long period of probation may be the most effective for another. Furthermore, research suggests that victims often desire the rehabilitation rather than punishment of offenders, yet perpetrator programs are not uniformly available as sentencing options. It is also unclear what effects specific penalties might have on victims’ levels of satisfaction and safety. In conclusion, more evidence is needed about sentencing in DVCs and the long-term impacts on offenders, victims, and the wider community.


  1. Cook, D., Burton, M., Robinson, A., & Vallely, C. (2004). Evaluation of specialist domestic violence courts/fast track systems. London: Crown Prosecution Service and Department of Constitutional Affairs. Retrieved from
  2. Hague, G., Kelly, L., & Mullender, A. (2001). Challenging violence against women: The Canadian experience. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.
  3. Kelitz, S. (2001). Specialization of domestic violence case management in the courts: A national survey. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts. Retrieved from
  4. Sacks, E. (2002). Creating a domestic violence court: Guidelines and best practices. San Francisco: Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Return to the overview of Sentencing and Incarceration in Forensic Psychology.