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Why work with the court systems to improve the response to survivors?

Last edited: December 22, 2011

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A court system consists of all levels of the courts, from magistrates and referees to Supreme or highest court judges, court administrators, court clerks, bailiffs, and interpreters. The court is the official forum which has the authority to administer justice following the terms of the law and procedures in the legislation of a state. A court is charged with providing the right to an impartial hearing for both victim and accused. It has the duty to hold perpetrators of violence accountable through incarceration, fines, community service, or probation programming.

Women and girl victims of violence often do not report violent acts. They believe that courts are predisposed to ignore or dismiss their claims. They justly fear that the court system will re-victimize them and publically humiliate them. Courts should work to improve the response to survivors so that survivors will be confident that they will receive a fair hearing in court.

A strong foundation for the rule of law begins with a court system that is independent, transparent, and free of corruption. Corruption and political manipulation of the courts lead to lack of confidence in the system and reduce access to justice for everyone, including survivors of violence. Enhancing the credibility of the courts should include strategies for the judiciary, prosecutors, lawyers, and all court personnel.


Argentina – Supreme Court Establishes Office of Domestic Violence

The Supreme Court of Argentina, in a Joint Programme with UNDP, UNICEF and UNIFEM (now UN Women), has established an Office on Domestic Violence (OVD). It is the first such office in the world to be created within the highest-ranking court of a country. The office serves the community, the judiciary, and the judicial staff.

A working group comprised of expert judges in family law, civil law, criminal law, and juvenile law, a forensic doctor, an administrator, and representatives from the prosecutor’s office and the public defender’s office met regularly for 5 years in the chambers of the Vice President of the Supreme Court of Argentina. The group created the OVD programme, the professional profile of the staff experts, and a plan for monitoring and evaluation of the OVD. The staff was selected in a public process and received a month of intensive training.

The OVD has standardized criteria for case registration and ensured timely access to justice for victims of domestic violence. A team of lawyers, medical professionals, psychologists, social workers, and administrative staff are available around the clock to help survivors report violence and to perform risk assessments, obtain immediate protective remedies, and provide expert opinions and a medical report to judges and prosecutors. In the words of Justice Highton de Nolasco:

The person who comes to the OVD will be assisted by a unit team consisting of a lawyer, a psychologist and a social worker. During the interview, a written statement is issued, all paperwork being completed for it to be a formal complaint, and a risk assessment report is drawn up. In addition, the victim–if necessary-is examined by a physician, who determines whether there are injuries, and whether photographs should be taken.

After the person communicates her or his story, she or he is given complete and detailed information about her or his options, whether juridical or not, related to the problem posed. Then, the victim expresses her or his will as to which course of action to pursue.

In those cases where the situation is extremely serious and the victim cannot leave home, she or he can count on the help of mobile squads belonging to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights programme Victims against Violence. These squads, with a simple call from the victim, can take the person to the OVD headquarters to initiate proceedings. The Court has also signed an agreement with the Mayor of the City of Buenos Aires, so as to make available hospital services and shelters if necessary.

The Office has improved efficiency, as evidenced by the courts making a decision on injunctions on the same day, or the following day at the latest. This has meant a great step forward, as before establishment of the OVD, the risk report required to determine whether it was appropriate to order a remedy used to take up to 4 months, which in turn resulted in a serious–and sometimes irreparable-delay in deciding on issues of victim protection.

 Likewise, when cases are referred to criminal courts, judges are provided with adequate documentation. According to judges, significant progress has been shown because there are no more delays in determining whether there are bodily injuries (before, if injuries were not very serious, they had healed by the time checks were made), and victims are now informed about the eventual existence of civil actions, simultaneously with criminal proceedings.

Cases may be submitted either to judicial or non-judicial authorities. In non-legal referrals, victims are provided with free legal advice services, psychological or psychiatric services.

…It is a tool for civil and criminal courts to coordinate their work and have, at the very moment victims file their claim, all necessary information to make immediate decisions.

The Office on Domestic Violence admitted 8500 cases in the first 17 months of its existence. Justice Highton de Nolasco noted that only 40% of these cases were admitted during court hours, emphasizing the importance of night and weekend hours. A monitoring process is already in place to analyze the performance of the relevant sectors and to obtain statistical records to support policies on domestic violence.

The Supreme Court of Argentina is ensuring the sustainability of the ODV by including it in its budget. When Supreme Court Justices in the Provinces of Argentina wanted to replicate the model, the Supreme Court convened a Committee on Access to Justice with a Domestic Violence Group of representatives of provincial high courts, federal judges, and court officers who had experience in creating the first OVD. To date, 22 provinces have agreed to establish OVDs at local levels, and 3 OVDs have been opened.

The OVD has increased awareness and capacity development of judges and court staff and technical support for statistical data. Further plans include a nationwide register of cases of domestic violence, more training for the judiciary, and awareness-raising for the people of Argentina.


Source: Avon Global Center for Gender and Justice at Cornell Law School. Gender Justice in the Argentine Context: Justice Highton de Nolasco Shares her Views.