Specialized courts/tribunals for violence against women

  • The U.N. Handbook for Legislation on Violence Against Women recommends that laws “provide for the creation of specialized courts or special court proceedings guaranteeing timely and efficient handling of cases of violence against women.” (Sec. 3.2.5). When they have adequate resources, there is evidence that specialized units in the justice system are more responsive and effective in enforcing laws on violence against women.
  • Around the world, special courts are particularly prevalent for domestic violence, where they allow for integration of a variety of legal processes including criminal, civil, and family law issues. Specialized tribunals often also are established to deal with cases of sexual harassment. Some nations have also created specialized courts to deal with sexual assault and rape.
  • Specialized courts provide a stronger possibility that court personnel will be gender-sensitive, experienced in the unique characteristics of violence against women cases, and may be able to process cases more quickly, reducing the burden on victims. Moreover, judges who consistently deal with cases of violence against women may see repeat offenders and can take appropriate action. Correspondingly, the fact that fewer individuals will deal with these cases can help deter future violence because offenders will expect increasing penalties and greater accountability.

CASE STUDY – Specialized Domestic Violence Courts Around the Globe

Specialized domestic violence courts have been established with positive results in countries around the world including Brazil, Nepal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Venezuela, and several states in the USA. There are some concerns to be aware of, however, when establishing specialized courts. For example, having a concentrated number of judges focused on this issue means that the entire domestic violence caseload rests in the hands of a few. Therefore, a poorly conceived or administered domestic violence court can negatively impact a jurisdiction’s efforts to keep victims safe, hold perpetrators accountable, and improve the justice system’s response to domestic violence. Finally, dedicated courts and prosecution teams may run the risk of being marginalized. Singling out one court to handle domestic violence issues may generate an understanding of that entity as one that deals with “family” as opposed to “real” crimes, thus undermining efforts to gain recognition of domestic violence as a crime and relegating domestic violence to the realm of the family. See: Specialized Domestic Violence Court Systems, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights; Nepal: Fast-Track Courts Ordered for Cases Involving Women, Children (2010).

Brazil’s experience with special courts highlights some of these issues. In 1995, Special Criminal Courts were created for minor offences. Brazil also has a system of Women’s Police Stations to deal with domestic violence and other crimes such as rape. Although not initially designed to hear only domestic violence cases, most domestic violence cases from the Women’s Police Stations were sent to the Special Criminal Courts. As a result, some feminists argued that domestic violence was being trivialized and not being treated as a serious crime. After advocacy by women’s groups, a new law on domestic violence –called the Maria da Penha law – created the Special Courts for Domestic and Family Violence Against Women. The new law, which transferred jurisdiction over domestic violence away from the Special Criminal Courts, recognizes five forms of domestic violence: physical, psychological, sexual, patrimonial, and moral. The new courts take an integrated approach covering not only criminal law, but also aspects of civil and family law including custody of children, alimony/ child support, restitution of assets, and protective orders to keep the perpetrator away from the victim.

(See: Regional Mapping Study of Women’s Police Stations in Latin America, 27 (2008))

Extensive analysis of the successes and challenges of operating domestic violence courts is available, in particular from the United States: