Report – Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts (SDACs) mapping research – Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse

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This report presents findings from the national mapping work of
existing SDACs in England and Wales conducted by Standing Together
Against Domestic Abuse (Standing Together) as part of the Mentor
Court project

As part of the Mentor Court Project, Standing Together conducted mapping research into Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts across the country. The research was formed over two years of mapping work, interviews with stakeholders and observational visits to SDACs nationwide. This report is the first comprehensive picture of the current state of specialist provision for victims of domestic abuse from criminal justice agencies such as the police, HMCTS and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). We are grateful to the Tampon Tax Fund for supporting this work, and to partners across the country who helped us to build our evidence base.

The findings demonstrate that victims across the country face a postcode lottery in accessing IDVA referrals and support, specialist measures in court and well-trained and consistently deployed staff. In many places we found the Domestic Abuse Best Practice Framework was not being met.

37% of courts in England and Wales do not have a specialist domestic abuse court. However, we also saw examples of good, promising practice and we very much hope that with this research, partners will work alongside us to improve services and share data so that the evidence base for specialist domestic abuse courts can continue to be built and strengthened. This work is just the beginning.

Summary of key findings
A depleted national landscape of magistrates’ courts and SDACS
Between 2010 and 2022, over half of magistrates’ courts had closed across England and Wales, dropping from 321 to 156. Such a depletion has not only affected the number of SDACs in operation, but also made it much harder for justice to be delivered locally.

A ‘patchwork’ of practice
We observed examples of good practice in operation, and that many practitioners at different levels are committed to delivering an effective response to domestic abuse. There is a real commitment to partnership working on the ground, but rarely is every component of the DABPF fully delivered.

Lack of victim focus and de-prioritisation of domestic abuse

The 12 core SDAC principles, which Standing Together have distilled into six essential SDAC elements, remain ‘the gold standard’ for the delivery of the national DABPF at Local Justice Area (LJA) level. These core principles are underpinned, just as the four DABPF components are, by a firm commitment to and focus on victim safety. Our mapping exercise highlighted considerable inconsistency in this respect, with efficiency of process taking priority over safety considerations.

The lack of victim focus within SDAC/court proceedings both reflects and is underscored by a process of de-prioritisation of domestic abuse within wider Criminal Justice System (CJS) processes which was most ostensibly manifested in low caseload and ineffective or inconsistent clustering.
Inevitably, this dual process of de-prioritisation of victim safety and domestic abuse reveals the lack of a wider coordinated community response to domestic abuse, where there is little strategic appetite and operational support for victim-centred practice, all against a backdrop of resourcedepletion, namely severe cuts to essential public services and funding uncertainty among the
specialist voluntary sector.

Impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic
From our stakeholder interviews, it was evident that all areas were still recovering from the short and medium-term impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic, and that many of the operational challenges their SDACs and wider CJS processes faced had either arisen from or been exacerbated by
the pandemic.

The value of dedicated IDVA support
Amid the ‘patchwork’ of practice observed, a constant theme which emerged from our mapping exercise was the value of dedicated IDVA support within the SDAC. IDVAs were found to be both well-integrated and well-respected within local partnerships. However, they were not always
included in operational decisions and their role in the SDAC was not always clearly defined or understood. The IDVAs’ effectiveness was often hampered by the ‘patchwork of provision’ caused by insufficient, inconsistent, and insecure funding. All areas agreed on the importance of specialist
Criminal Justice IDVAs, especially those which had benefited from this provision and subsequently lost it.

Benefits of an SDAC
Despite the ‘patchwork’ of practice observed among SDACs and numerous operational and strategic challenges to an effective SDAC model, stakeholder interviews revealed a real appetite for SDACs. Most importantly, there was a strong alignment between the perceived benefits of the SDAC by relevant stakeholders and the four DABPF components

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