Domestic Violence Courts Part 1 – Cowichan Valley

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British Columbia’s two domestic violence courts have been developed as a result of initiatives by Provincial Court judges and others locally involved in the delivery of criminal justice services. These people have dedicated their time to meeting with organizations working on family violence; researching, consulting and developing a plan for a domestic violence court; implementing the plan; and meeting with stakeholders and collaborators to monitor progress and make adjustments as needed.

As local initiatives, our domestic violence courts have different features based on the needs and resources of their communities. However, both employ a “therapeutic or problem-solving” model, in which co-ordinated services are provided to affected families and corresponding information is offered to the judge to make sentencing more effective. Problem-solving courts try to help people with the underlying problems contributing to their criminal behaviour, but still hold them accountable. This approach is also used in the B.C. Provincial Court’s drug treatment,
First Nations, and Vancouver and Victoria community courts.

The Cowichan Valley Domestic Violence Court began in 2009. Held every second week, it adopts a collaborative, therapeutic approach to sentencing offenders who plead guilty to domestic violence offences. Service providers attend court to provide information and services for both victims and offenders.

Participants include specially trained Crown counsel, police, probation officers, community-based victim services, a Native Court Worker, and a child protection social worker. Notable features of this co-ordinated approach are:

  • Victims are immediately connected to the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society (CWAV). CWAV works with both men and women to educate victims about the court process and the dynamics of domestic violence, create safety plans, and provide counselling. The local First Nation is also involved in safety planning and counselling.
  • At bail hearings the Crown prosecutor may give the judge information provided by police about previous visits to a home for violence, in addition to any criminal convictions an accused person may have.
  • If an accused person asks to change a bail order that prohibits contact with the complainant and the complainant agrees, the complainant must attend 3 sessions with a CWAV worker before the application is heard by a judge. This ensures complainants understand the issues and their position fully. CWAV then provides safety planning information to the Court.
  • Community-based resources are also provided for accused persons who wish to engage in counselling before concluding their criminal charges in court.

Service providers in the Cowichan Valley report that the existence of a specialized violence court has encouraged at-risk families to seek help before violence occurs.

Judge Susan Wishart, who often sits in Domestic Violence Court in Duncan, says, “Judges get much better information through the participation of the other community agencies, and this assists greatly in making both bail and sentencing decisions. Including existing service providers in the court process means both victims and offenders are better connected with those services. This benefits not just the individuals, but the community as a whole.”

Duncan Judge Roger Cutler says, “Specialized courts like this one offer two critical advantages. First, they provide a formal process in which all participants can gather and share relevant information, ensuring a just resolution in which all factors are considered. Second, both the accused and the complainant are provided services that give them the best opportunity to avoid future violence.”

This is the first of a three part series. Watch for eNews on May 19th describing the Nanaimo Domestic Violence Court. On June 2nd eNews will explain a trial scheduling initiative in Kelowna and Penticton that, while not a specialized domestic violence court, may be contributing to reducing family violence.