A new report from Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse (STADA) published earlier this month (9 August 2023) provides the first comprehensive map of Specialist Domestic Abuse Courts (SDACs) across England & Wales. The report found that the big reduction in the number of magistrates’ courts (which dropped from 321 to 156 between 2010 and 2022 – see header image) had, unsurprisingly, significantly reduced the number of SDACs.
Of the 156 open magistrates’ courts across England and Wales as of 2022, the mapping exercise identified 57 SDACs and a further 38 courts which referred their domestic abuse cases to an SDAC.
There are several implications of this arrangement, most importantly some victims and defendants having to travel considerable distances to access courts. The same applies for Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs) and other specialist support services which may not have resources to engage with SDACs fully if they are not located in the region that they cover.
The map below, reproduced from the report shows self-reported SDACs in operation in 2022 in green and courts which do not operate an SDAC but refer domestic abuse cases to an SDAC within the region in red.
Essential elements of SDACs
As well as mapping the number of SDACs, the report assessed them against quality criteria. STADA distilled the original 12 SDAC components into a set of six essential elements which you can see in the infographic I have reproduced from the court below.
The mapping exercise highlighted considerable inconsistency in the extent to which these six elements were present, with efficiency of process taking priority over safety considerations.
The report argues that the lack of victim focus within SDAC/court proceedings reflects and is underscored by a process of de-prioritisation of domestic abuse within wider Criminal Justice System (CJS) processes. The clearest evidence of this was found in low caseloads and ineffective or inconsistent clustering of services.
The importance of IDVAs
Amid the ‘patchwork’ of practice observed, a constant theme which emerged from the 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.
SDACs are valued
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.
The report makes 8 key policy & practice recommendations:
- Inclusion of the SDAC model into the statutory guidance for the Victim & Prisoners Bill;
- Consistent clustering of domestic abuse cases;
- Audit of SDACs and benchmark of DABPF implementation plans against the six essential SDAC elements;
- Funding for and implementation of coordination;
- National accreditation framework for SDACs across England & Wales;
- Developing an effective CCR framework;
- Long-term and secure funding for dedicated Criminal Justice IDVAs;
- Using the SDAC model to inform the development of substance use courts and problem-solving courts.