More than one in six specialist domestic violence courts are set to close as part of the government’s nationwide court closures plan, it has emerged.
Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter has tabled a series of parliamentary questions to justice secretary Kenneth Clarke on the impact of the closures, due to be answered this week.
The Specialist Domestic Violence Court (SDVC) was introduced in 2005 to make it easier for victims to give evidence and bring more offenders to justice.
The scheme was hailed as an immediate success by government and court users, and within four years 127 had been established.
However, 23 SDVCs are among the 142 courts that the Ministry of Justice plans to close during this parliament as part of its cost-cutting measures.
Slaughter said: ‘These specialist courts are a proven success at getting domestic violence cases through trial by supporting vulnerable women.
'Closing one in six is further evidence that the government is targeting women and gives the lie to its claim that it is only outdated courts that are being closed.’
The SDVCs affected by possible closure are spread across the country, from Whitehaven in the north to Lewes in the south.
They currently provide independent advisers for victims and dedicated prosecutors, as well as specialist magistrates and police officers, and separate areas to make sure victims do not encounter their attackers.
A Law Society spokeswoman said the need for greater efficiency in the court system was understandable, but warned that cuts must not adversely affect vulnerable people.
National domestic violence charity Refuge said it will be difficult to convince victims to come to court if they have to travel a long way.
It warned there could be heavier caseloads for independent domestic violence advocates if they are covering a wider geographical area, and that while there is also a risk that alternative courts may not be fitted with necessary safety measures.
Refuge chief executive Sandra Horley added: ‘Attending court can be a terrifying and intimidating experience for a victim of domestic violence.
'Not only will a woman have to come face-to-face with her violent attacker, she may also have to deal with officials who have a limited understanding of domestic violence.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: ‘The closure of a courthouse that serves as the venue for a SDVC is not the same as the closure of an SDVC system.
'Arrangements are being put in place to ensure the work of the SDVC systems continues after these courts have closed.’