Specialist courts dealing with complex cases such as domestic abuse should be piloted as part of criminal court reforms, a thinktank has recommended, days after the lord chancellor spoke highly about the potential of ‘problem-solving’ courts.
The Centre for Justice Innovation, in its Better Courts: A blueprint for innovation report, says crimes such as domestic and sexual abuse are ‘often complex and require a more sophisticated approach in order to secure prosecutions, protect victims and ensure that justice is done’.
It suggests establishing integrated domestic abuse courts that would hear criminal, family and civil matters under a ‘one judge, one family’ model.
Domestic abuse victims ‘often find themselves jumping from forum to forum’ to resolve family, civil and criminal matters ‘that [are] all facets of the same underlying issue’, the report states.
Evidence from the US, Australia and New Zealand suggest integrated courts increase convictions and witness participation, lower re-offending, enforce protection orders more effectively and reduce case-processing time, it adds.
Last week justice secretary Michael Gove told the Magistrates’ Association he was ‘impressed’ by the potential of problem-solving courts ‘to contribute to crime reduction and personal redemption’ during a recent visit to the US.
‘The lord chief justice and I have discussed how we can learn from the experience of problem-solving courts in other jurisdictions and we are both keen to look at what more we can do in this area,’ he said.
In its report, CJI proposes piloting integrated domestic abuse courts in a number of ‘large, urban’ courts, with access to specialist prosecutors, specialist multi-national agency teams to support victims, and be presided over by specialist sentencers.
The ‘experiment’ could begin with a ‘dedicated’ single pilot to test out the viability of integrated courts. If successful, an ‘innovation fund’ could be created to help other sites develop the approach.
The report also recommends that magistrates hold offenders to account in the community. Magistrates could hold regular ‘accountability reviews’ in out-of-court, civic buildings, ‘designed to motivate and monitor offenders’.
Magistrates could also hear ‘low-level’ cases in civil buildings and be trained to hear ‘simple’ cases in an ‘online tribunal format’.
CJI director Phil Bowen (pictured) said: ‘Courts are the linchpin of our justice system. A better court system ought to have fairness and problem-solving at its heart. These will be courts which are neither harsh nor weak, but simply better.’