Page last updated at 02:46 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Special courts target domestic violence

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

A man beating a woman
One in four women are victims of domestic violence
Specialist courts are being credited with helping increase the conviction rate for domestic violence offences in England and Wales. But help for victims extends beyond the courtroom.

Five years ago, if a battered wife was brave enough to take her husband to court, chances were the experience would be an ordeal.

Often the defendant - someone she had loved, at least at one time - could reduce her to a nervous wreck with a cold stare from the dock.

Just 46% of cases ended in conviction.

After a 30-year police career, Anthony Wills had reached a simple conclusion: "The response to domestic violence was pretty bad."

Now, as chief executive of west London-based charity Standing Together, he works to improve the way agencies like the courts, police, prosecution and probation service deal with such abuse cases.

"For decades, conviction rates were pitifully low," he said.

"Women would be persuaded by that person who held power over them not to proceed. Or they would have no self-esteem and would not want to press charges against the one person in their life who showed them love."

If a bail application is granted, the victim needs to know immediately because she might bump into the defendant on her way to the shop
Meghan Field
Independent domestic violence adviser

The figures still make grim reading. About one in four women and one in six men are victims of domestic violence, which accounts for 16% of all violent incidents.

Through regular meetings and monitoring of cases, Standing Together co-ordinates the agencies involved to ensure they are tackling the problem in the right way.

And the government insists the situation is improving. Recently-published figures suggest conviction rates have risen to 76%. In 2007 family and criminal courts helped 22,975 more victims than three years earlier.

According to the Home Office, the creation of 104 specialist domestic violence courts was key to this achievement.

Sitting one day per week in magistrates court buildings, from outside they look like average courtrooms.

But Colin Cooper, legal team manager at West London Magistrates' Court, said they operate very differently.

All staff receive specialist training, from district judges and court clerks to crown prosecutors and even ushers, he said.

"It gives everyone an awareness of what it takes for someone to report domestic violence. We watch video reconstructions of 999 calls which give you a real feeling of what it must be like."

No intimidation

New laws have allowed vulnerable witnesses to give evidence from behind a screen, or via video-link in extreme cases.

A curtain around the witness box was a simple introduction. But it blocks the view of the locked dock, allowing the victim to address the judge and lawyers without fear of intimidation from the defendant.

Further legislation has meant those defending themselves are barred from cross-examining victims, said Mr Cooper. Instead, the court appoints solicitors solely for that task.

An average morning in court revealed many cases are linked to drink.

One quietly-spoken young father was ordered to attend a probation service "Caring Dads" scheme after smashing his ex-wife's front door when he flew into a drunken rage at being unable to see their daughter.

Another defendant, a frail man of 76, hobbled into the courtroom on crutches to deny assaulting his 71-year-old wife by biting into her finger.

Barred from contact

In every case, the district judge imposed strict conditions barring defendants from contacting their alleged victims - although this often meant defendants struggled to find a place to stay.

Victims rarely have to step into the courtroom at all.

Instead, three-quarters of victims are kept up-to-date by specialist independent advisers employed by charities and funded with 3m in government cash.

Meghan Field, an adviser from Woman's Trust West London, said: "We explain each step of the legal process to the victims.

"If a bail application is granted, the victim needs to know immediately because she might bump into the defendant on her way to the shops.

"We can help them make plans for their safety."

Previously the victim would have been relying on police to report back from the court.

Advisers often find out that defendants have been trying to get in touch with their victims - for example from prison - and can alert the court. They also read out statements from the victims, which can influence sentence.

For Ms Field, the benefits of well-run domestic violence courts are obvious.

"Women want swift justice and cases in these courts can come to trial in a few months. Where these courts aren't in place, it can take a year-and-a-half," she said.

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