Domestic Violence & The Courtroom
Understanding The Problem... Knowing The Victim

How Judges Can Help

What can a judge do to help stop domestic violence and assist victims to survive?

First, the judge must listen carefully and determine who is the victim. Your demeanor demonstrates to the victim that you are concerned about his or her circumstances and the underlying events.

Second, remember that the initial step toward stopping the abuse is being able to identify it as such. Denial, rationalization and minimization are coping methods by the abused person and those closest to the victim. The court must take whatever steps are necessary to insure that the victim finds safety. The judge should take advantage of all the resources available to provide comfort and safety for the victim.
The judge must recognize that the victim may be overwhelmed by the proceedings and unable to follow through with corrective steps the court might order.

Third, the victim must trust you. One of the effects of battering is that the victim's sense of trust has been so eroded, that he or she can no longer perceive neutrality. To the victim accustomed to living in an environment where a mistake in judgment could be lethal, there is little room for poor judgment in the courtroom. The court must take a proactive approach so that the victim trusts the court and the judicial system. Where jurisdiction permits, appoint an understanding lawyer to represent the victim and explain the options.

Fourth, while a victim may understand the legal issues intellectually, he or she is on an emotional roller coaster. Comprehension of the available options becomes difficult. A judge must take time to explain the options available and to solicit sufficient feedback from the victim to insure that there is sufficient comprehension.

Fifth, a victim may not want to make trouble and may appear very complacent in the courtroom even when he or she does not agree with what is taking place. A judge needs to take the time to ask for specific details. A victim may tend to accept responsibility for things that are not his or her fault, out of fear of further abuse. Frequently, a victim will accept inaccuracies in the record for similar reasons. A judge must make sure the court record is clear and complete. This may include affording the victim the opportunity to state any objections without fear and, if necessary, without the batterer being present. Judges must take great care to prevent dangerous or unfair settlements, custody and visitation orders.

Sixth, the atmosphere in the courtroom must be free of intimidation. It is easy to forget that the victim may have been exposed to years of intimidation. A judge can use his or her authority to the fullest extent of the law and enforce every relevant law in the case. They can also create a courtroom ambience that promotes "zero tolerance" of domestic violence. For example, a judge can instruct bailiffs not to permit the litigants and related family members or friends to interact in an obtrusive manner during court recess. These loud family visits may be manipulative, coercive and inappropriate. A defendant will sometimes behave in a jovial manner or make vulgar comments about the victim during courtroom recess. Allowing this to happen sends a message of defiance to both the court and victim, and makes it appear that the defendant is immune to the court's authority.

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