Although prosecutors and forensic doctors in countries in CEE/CIS often have considerable control over the initiation and course of criminal proceedings, judges can help protect victims and ensure batterer accountability in many ways. In the courtroom, they enforce and interpret existing laws; they may also have the ability to establish courtroom policies and procedures that enhance victim safety. Outside of the courtroom, judges are often community leaders, and can help shape a community’s response to domestic violence by mobilizing other professionals and through example. Judges, like prosecutors and police, are also a critical part of a coordinated community response; coordination of judicial responses with those of other actors in the legal, medical and advocacy communities can avoid inconsistent responses that undermine victim safety and batterer accountability.

Enforcing Laws

Judges can protect victim safety and increase batterer accountability by enforcing existing laws. In many countries, general criminal laws for assault are the only means available for sanctioning a batterer. Judges can enforce the existing laws by treating assaults committed by partners as serious crimes.

Similarly, prompt and consistent enforcement of civil orders for protection, where these are available, is critical. Research indicates that even a short time in jail for violations of protection orders highlights for the abuser the seriousness with which the legal system will view domestic abuse. Giving abusers “second chances” endangers the victim and sends a message to both abuser and victim that the protection order will not be enforced.

Judges can also inform batterers when the protection order is issued that violations will be punished. Research indicates that pairing the order with a verbal warning not only increases the likelihood that the batterer will comply with the order, but also communicates to the victim (and to all others in the courtroom) that she has a right to be free from violence and that the community will not tolerate domestic violence. Judges can also alleviate some of the threat of retaliation by emphasizing that the issuance of a protection order is the responsibility of the court, not the victim— thus also making clear that the abuse is not a “private” matter but rather a community concern.

Exercising Discretion

Judges may also have discretion in interpreting or enforcing the laws. Sometimes judges exercise their discretion in ways that undermine victim safety and batterer accountability. For example, in Poland, judges routinely suspend sentences for domestic violence convictions. A suspended sentence reinforces the batterer’s belief in his right to use violence to establish power and control over his partner, as well as his perception that such violence will not be punished. From MAHR, A Report on Domestic Violence in Poland 4 (2002).

While prosecutors may have the authority to determine the charges brought against a defendant, judges may be able to choose among different penalties. Different sentences may be called for in different contexts. For example, a monetary fine is often borne by the family of the abuser; as a result, restitution—orders to the abuser to pay the victim for lost wages, destroyed property, or medical expenses—may be more appropriate. In some countries, such options may not be available. In Uzbekistan, for example, research revealed that women were reluctant to use the legal system because there were no sanctions available short of fines or imprisonment. From MAHR, Domestic Violence in Uzbekistan 25 (2000). In these situations, creative approaches may be necessary to fashion a remedy that ensures the safety of the victim while sanctioning the batterer.

Judges may also have discretion in family law matters. Divorce is one of the only forms of legal relief available to battered women in many countries; mandatory mediation not only places them in danger of retaliation from the batterer, but may provide the batterer with opportunities to intimidate and coerce. In some countries, such mediation is mandatory, while in others it is discretionary. To the extent a judge has discretion in requiring mediation, setting the length of time allotted to mediation, or granting a divorce, judges should exercise this discretion carefully. The dangers faced by victims in attempting to leave a relationship should be recognized and reflected in any judicial ruling.

Finally, judges may also have the authority to make decisions about applications for pretrial release. Because victims of domestic violence are most vulnerable when they attempt to leave a relationship, such decisions should be based on the risk posed by release to the victim. In criminal cases, judges may be able to deny release, impose conditions on the release, or issue a no contact order to ensure that the abuser does not attempt to retaliate against the victim. No contact orders in criminal cases direct the abuser to stay away from the victim pending resolution of the case. They are similar to orders for protection in some ways.

Establishing Policies and Procedures

Judges may have the authority to establish courtroom policies and procedures that can enhance victim safety. Batterers may attempt to intimidate or even harm victims in the courtroom or on the way to or from the courthouse. Judges may be able to ensure that victims are provided with a separate waiting area; they may also be able to offer to send an escort with the victim to her mode of transportation, or require the batterer to delay his departure to ensure that he does not follow or attack her. Metal detectors can be set up at courthouse entrances to screen for weapons.

Judges may be able to establish policies or issue orders that require victims to be notified prior to a defendant’s release. Women are in significant danger of stalking and retaliatory violence after they seek to use the legal system to protect themselves from abuse. Notifying a woman that her batterer is about to be released can provide her with the time she will need to plan for her safety.

Courthouse policies and procedures can also be revised to enhance victim access. Courts can create emergency hours, establish multiple locations at which victims can file for orders for protection, offer multilingual services when necessary, and ensure that the courthouse and courtrooms are accessible for people with disabilities. Judges may be able to streamline courthouse procedures through the development of common forms, checklists, and protocols, to shorten the time required to obtain relief.

Courthouse policies and procedures can also be developed to increase coordination between different agencies. Such procedures can, for example, enhance post-conviction monitoring. If a batterer has been ordered to participate in a batterer’s treatment program, it may be useful to provide ways for that treatment program to notify the court or another law enforcement agency if the batterer fails to comply with his sentence. Recent efforts to coordinate judicial responses in the United States have focused on the use of web-based technology to share information.


Judges can also affect victim safety and batterer accountability through their demeanor. When seeking assistance through the legal system, many victims fear retaliation from the abuser, intimidation by an unfamiliar and complicated legal process, and disbelief by the presiding judge. Being willing to listen, taking the women’s words seriously, considering her needs, making eye contact—all are ways in which judges can counter such fears. Judicial demeanor also sets the tone for the demeanor of other courtroom personnel. If judges treat domestic violence cases seriously, other criminal justice personnel are more likely to follow this lead.

Advocacy Strategies for Judicial Reform

Advocates can use a number of different strategies to promote improved judicial responses. Court monitoring, for example, helps to identify areas of concern and increase the visibility of these issues. Regular observation and reporting by community members on judicial responses increases the visibility of these responses in a particular community, as well as of domestic violence issues generally. Observing itself can also increase judicial self-awareness; many judges may become more aware of their own handling of domestic violence cases and the effect they can have on perpetrators and victims simply because of the presence of outside observers in the courtroom. Court monitoring also sends a message to the legal system that domestic violence is a community priority.

Training of judges and other courtroom personnel (security, clerks, etc.) can also have a significant impact on judicial responses to domestic violence issues in the courtroom. Training can provide judges with the information they need to better address the needs of battered women and ensure batterer accountability. Such training can focus on challenging the myths surrounding domestic violence, the effect of domestic violence on victims, the needs of victims, victim experiences in courts, and the impact of judicial demeanor on abusers. Training can help judges become more sensitive to the needs of victims and the dynamics of domestic violence. For example, judges should be aware of the fact that a woman seeking to withdraw a protection order or a criminal case may have been threatened by the abuser.

Adapted from Judge Jerry J. Bowles, Judicial Response to Domestic Violence (2000); James Ptacek, Battered Women in the Courtroom:  The Power of Judicial Responses (1999); Richard Ducote, The Family Law Commentator 4 (1998); Gail A. Goolkasian, Confronting Domestic Violence: The Role of Criminal Court Judges 4 (1986).

The American Judges Foundation and American Judges Association offer a pamphlet for judges, Domestic Violence and the Courtroom: Understanding the Problem . . . Knowing the Victim, that discusses forms of abuse, dynamics of domestic violence, and ways in which judges can help protect victims of domestic violence. Portions of this pamphlet may be particularly useful as handouts in training sessions. Safety and Accountability: The Underpinnings of a Just Justice System, provides a detailed discussion of some of the barriers faced by battered women in accessing the court system.

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