Specialized courts & victim satisfaction
There is a strong correlation between victim satisfaction and their participation in the justice process. Around the world, specialized courts have been established to tackle family violence and sexual assault. In some countries, there are even specialized courts for sexual assault cases only. Specialized courts are important as the objective of justice is understood within the broader context of holistic support and victim participation. Victims are at the heart of the design, process and outcomes of specialized courts.
Violence against women is complex involving emotional, psychological and physical aspects. When defendants and victims share a close relationship or where children are involved, victims are often reluctant to testify against the defendants. As such, in cases of violence against women, we need success indicators beyond prosecutions, convictions and acquittals. Victim satisfaction, safety, recidivism, and the effectiveness of multi-agency responses to victims, offenders and their children, are good indicators of system responsiveness. Indicators must be designed around (1) prevention, (2) protection and (3) support.
Afghanistan has established a handful of EVAW specialist courts and it remains to be seen whether these specialist courts are successful in delivering specialized services and whether they respond holistically to victims' needs. To evaluate this, we can observe their performance on the following indicators:
(1) Specialist personnel
(2) Integrated info systems
(3) Extent to which the courts are victim and child-friendly
(4) Coordination of multi-agencies
(5) Access to legal aid onsite
(6) Sentencing consistency and alternatives to punishment
(7) Training plans for all staff
(8) Protocols for risk assessment
(9) M&E system and tools/ accountability
(10) Compliance of rules
(11) Victim withdrawal
I touch on key determinants of what makes a specialized court successful:
1. Victim Advocates: Independent victim advocates or advisors are essential players in the process where victim satisfaction is concerned. Victim advocates assist the prosecution to identify cases, keep victims informed, involve them in decision-making and brief prosecutors on victims' needs and views. Victim advocates are independent. Prosecutors are not (and cannot be ) victim advocates as prosecutors represent the State, and, State interest and victims' interests are not always aligned.
2. Victim satisfaction:
(1) Is the victim being regularly informed of the case status?
[When are victims required to be informed and who is responsible to inform them?]
(2) Are courts being informed of victims' needs and viewpoints?
[What should the courts be informed of and who is responsible to inform them?]
(3) Is the victim being supported [psychosocial, medical, safety, child support etc] ?
[Are the prosecution units responding to this as a matter of protocol? Can this be included in the court's case management duties?]
(4) How is information being coordinated and shared between agencies?
[What information should be shared? How do the agencies use the information?]
(5) What protocols exist and how do they put the victim at the heart of the process?
[Check each and every protocol/procedure against victim satisfaction and needs]
(6) What linkages can be made with civil/family courts? This is a fundamental question to address if the objective of specialist courts is to provide holistic support for victims and their children.
Definition: We can look at the arrangements in place to help actors and agencies identify domestic violence. Indeed, not all cases are discernible by staff as domestic violence. Guides with various scenarios containing subtle undertones of domestic violence are useful in helping staff spot signs of domestic violence. Checklists are also useful to spot or narrow down assessment of whether a case is a case of domestic violence.
Speed: How long does it take to get justice? Study the time taken by the police, investigating prosecutor, court prosecutor, court administrators and judges to process the case and make decisions. Bear in mind that speed may not always be positive if victims need time and any evaluation of "prompt justice" must be understood in the broader context of victims' needs.
Victim Withdrawal: At which stage of the process do we see a high proportion of victims withdrawing their petition? If we can pinpoint this, then we can identify the issues, and, develop appropriate support measures.
Victim withdrawal is a key performance indicator of specialized courts as it could indicate a lack of support measures for the victims to pursue their case or lack of participation in the process. Reasons for withdrawal should be recorded on a standard template and filed. The standard template should prompt questions to obtain qualitative responses.
When victims withdraw their petitions in Afghanistan, the case closes [barring felony cases]. The right of withdrawal may be repealed under the forthcoming Penal Code. If Afghanistan adopts a pro-prosecution policy, one of the ways to approach this is to institute mandatory witness summonses so that the prosecution can proceed on the basis of alternative evidence and relieve the victim from testifying.
Bail: When setting bail or responding to breach of bail, courts must consult and seek information from relevant agencies. They will be in the position to advise the courts on the risk of bail to the safety of the victim.
Sentencing: Many victims want to alleviate their situation by helping their perpetrators deal with the root causes of violence. Certain cases may warrant rehabilitation orders. Courts can be more imaginative in sentencing. In Afghanistan, there will be an opportunity for alternative sentencing in the new Penal Code. However, alternative sentencing orders must be informed and courts should look at pre-sentencing reports and victim's statements before making an order.
Victim impact statements: Court services should make it a policy to contact and obtain input from the victim on sentencing.
Multi-agency partnerships: Courts should meet with all agencies regularly to review operations and spot bottle necks and issues in operations and coordination.
M&E: Forms should be standardized and completed by relevant agencies.
Risk assessment: All agencies should be informed of the symptoms of risks of further violence to victims and their children. Risks should be identified at the earliest stage of engagement with the victim and reviewed on the basis of new events and offences. Use a standard risk assessment model for all agencies and in courts. The model should be disseminated widely. Staff should be trained on the model.
Evidence: I noted that most cases rely on victim statements and medical reports. Photographs should be taken of the victim and if possible, at the scene of the crime. Evidence should be gathered on the basis of templates or checklists to ensure compliance. Evidence gathering is important to ensure that the case can be prosecuted without the victim's statement.
Protocols: There should be standard protocols across all partner agencies to share information such as disability, residency, language, socio-economic circumstances, whether the victim has children, past violence, problems with drugs and alcohol and mental health issues. Agencies can then be tasked to act and provide services to victims, offenders and their children. All actions should be reported back to the courts.
If you have any questions about specialist courts, do not hesitate to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, we are always looking to touch base with advocates who has worked in such courts in Afghanistan, India and abroad.