Charging and Prosecution Policies in Cases of Spousal Assault: a Synthesis of Research, Academic, and Judicial Responses

2. Victim Perspectives on the Policy

A number of Canadian studies have examined the response of female victims of violence to the implementation of Charging and Prosecution Policies in Cases of Spousal Assault: a Synthesis of Research, Academic, and Judicial Responses . One fairly consistent theme emerging from research evaluating victim perspectives on the policy is a strong degree of support for mandatory charging and arrest among female victims of violence, but a substantial degree of dissatisfaction with the policy of mandatory prosecution.

Jaffe et al (1991) found that victim satisfaction with police response to incidents of domestic violence increased dramatically following the implementation of a mandatory charge/arrest policy in London, Ontario. Between 1979 and 1990, victim satisfaction with police response increased from 48% to 65%. Moreover, 87% of the victims in the study indicated that they would call the police again. This feeling among the victims in the study appears to be corroborated by evidence in the study that the victims surveyed in fact continued to contact the police for assistance on successive occasions. Frequency of calls to police increased following the target incident.

Jaffe et al (1991) also reported an increase in satisfaction with Crown attorneys between 1979 and 1990. In 1979, only 31% of victims reported feeling satisfied with the assistance of Crown attorneys. This figure had risen to 41% by 1983 and, by 1990, 65% of the victims reported feeling “a sense of complete support” from the Crown attorneys with whom they had been in contact (Jaffe et al, 1991, p.82). It is interesting to note in this regard that by 1990, only 10.9% of all charges were dismissed or withdrawn, compared with 16.4% in 1983 and 38.4% in 1979.

Roberts (1996) found high support for the mandatory charging policy among victims of domestic violence in the Yukon Territory. Eighty-five percent of victims in the Yukon felt that the mandatory charging policy was a good one, and 68% felt that their experience with mandatory charging made them “more or less confident about reporting a future incident of assault”. The author notes that support for the policy was “primarily based on the notions that spousal assault is a serious matter, that there should be a clear societal message that it is unacceptable, and that victims or potential victims need protection from assaultive spouses” (Roberts, 1996, p.21).

While victim respondents in the Yukon study indicated basic support for the charging policy, the author found considerable division over whether mandatory charges should lead to mandatory prosecution (Roberts, 1996, p.22). Almost all of the victims in the study engaged the criminal justice system because they wanted to feel safe, while many wanted assistance in establishing a non-violent relationship. Approximately half of the respondents considered that the utilization of a more flexible post-charge approach would be more appropriate. Prosecution of the spouse was often perceived to be contrary to victims’ needs to be treated with concern, interest, and respect. Victim dissatisfaction with their experiences with the Crown was usually related to little or no contact with the Crown and lack of information.

Plecas, Seggar, and Marsland (2000) conducted a survey of 74 female victims of domestic violence in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The primary purpose of the study was to determine the extent to which victims supported the policy, their reasons for non-cooperation (i.e., no support for the prosecution to go forward), and the extent to which the policy has helped reduce subsequent violence against the victim. The results of the study indicated widespread support among victims for the policy and the way in which it was implemented. Specifically, 86% of victims stated that they agreed with the policy, and the same percentage stated that they were satisfied with the way in which the police dealt with their cases. Also, 82% agreed with the policy of mandated “no-contact” orders, which prohibit the offender and victim from having contact with each other for some period of time after the offender’s arrest. As well, while nearly half of the victims surveyed (49%) expressed some reservations about the conditions associated with no-contact orders, overall 86% agreed with the conditions and 82% ultimately complied with them. This support for the policy persisted in spite of the fact that 30% of the victims reported suffering financially following the offender’s arrest, 62% of offenders didn’t fully comply with the conditions of the no-contact order, and 43% of offenders re-assaulted their victim within the 27 month follow-up period. It is also noteworthy that 90% of the victims interviewed indicated that they would call the police again.

Although a large majority of victims in the B.C. study expressed support for the policy, a significant percentage of them proved to be uncooperative. Forty percent of victims indicated that they did not wish to proceed with the prosecution of the offender (although 20% did eventually cooperate in the prosecution). The main reason cited by victims for lack of cooperation was their desire to reconcile with the offender (72% of victims). Indeed, 39% of victims wanted contact with the offender, and 29% asked for the no-contact order to be dropped. Among those who wanted the no-contact order dropped, 81% cited a desire for reconciliation as the basis for this, while 19% wanted to grant the offender access to his children.

Light and Rivkin (1996) interviewed a sample of eight women who had encountered criminal justice interventions that mandated the charging and prosecution of their spouses. The study gauged their perceptions of how they were treated by the justice system, and the institutional support they believed they required in order to remain supportive of the proceedings being taken against their abusive partner. While most of the women in their study felt they had received adequate or appropriate support from the police, they seemed to feel far less supported in their encounters with Crown counsel. The relief they felt when they were able to relinquish responsibility for stopping the violence by involving the police appeared to be replaced by frustration and feelings of powerlessness as they moved deeper into the system. Their complaints included not having an opportunity to meet the Crown until the actual court day, not being adequately informed of what would be expected of them in court, not feeling that they were being taken seriously, and having to tell their story to several different Crown counsel. Better support in these areas would presumably provide greater impetus for them to remain in the system.

The complexity of female victims’ perceptions of Charging and Prosecution Policies in Cases of Spousal Assault: a Synthesis of Research, Academic, and Judicial Responses has most recently been commented on in a study conducted in Ontario. Landau (2000) found that, when asked specifically whether they wanted the police to lay charges in their case, 60% of victims responded affirmatively. The most common reason identified by the women in support of charging was that it would teach the abuser not to repeat the violence and that it was a crime to assault someone (22%). Significantly, 80% of the women interviewed agreed with the policy to lay charges against the wishes of other women.

While there seemed to be strong general support for the existence of a mandatory charging policy, the Landau study reported that the subsequent prosecution of their spouses resulted in anxiety and uncertainty for many of the women. The author asserts, on the basis of respondents’ comments in an open-ended question component of the study, that for many women, the prosecution of their spouses was “a highly disempowering experience” (Landau, 2000, p.147). According to the author, the most frequent and consistent feedback from women was the need for more information about the court process, trial dates, release dates for the accused, and court outcomes. An unfortunate limitation of the study in this regard is that it presents no statistical evidence indicating levels of approval or disapproval among the women who encountered the mandatory prosecution policy. The author only notes that, while 80% of women agreed with the charges that were laid, 32% asked to have the charges dropped. Though the author ultimately argues against the use of Charging and Prosecution Policies in Cases of Spousal Assault: a Synthesis of Research, Academic, and Judicial Responses , the research she presents does not appear to provide any clear support for her conclusion that such policies are misdirected. Rather, this conclusion appears to be drawn from the author’s own perception of deficiencies in the political, ideological, and symbolic rationales for the policy, and in the “professional limitations, shortcomings or lack of commitment to reducing violence against women” (Landau, 2000, p.153) that she perceives among criminal justice professionals.

A recent American article focussing on victim rationales for refusing to co-operate with the prosecution of abusive spouses may provide some guidance in understanding the apparent disparity between victim support for charging versus prosecution policies. Bennett, Goodman and Dutton (1999) have identified a number of obstacles facing victims of domestic violence who are involved in the criminal prosecution of an abusive partner:

  • Confusion about the process and the consequences of prosecution for herself and the accused, resulting from the insufficient provision of information about the case and the criminal process itself;
  • The length of the criminal process, including numerous trips to the courthouse. Lack of contact with the court during this lengthy period serves to exacerbate victim frustration.
  • Fear of the offender during the time leading up to the trial.
  • Conflict over the possibility of incarceration of the abusive partner. This is particularly so where victims need child support from the abusive partner or are otherwise economically dependent on the partner.
  • Victims may wish to leave the system after it has met their needs – they may use the system as an immediate intervention to help manage the violence, and then disengage from the system after this need has been met.

Ursel (1998) has also commented on the need for Crown attorneys and police to understand that women who make complaints of abuse by their partners, yet recant at later dates, are using the criminal justice system as a strategy of resistance that does not conform to the logic of prosecution. In making and withdrawing complaints, women search for bargaining tools and tactics to help them survive abusive relationships. These women are struggling to protect themselves and their children through realistic and attainable means.

The cumulative effect of recent Canadian research suggests that there exists a fairly strong degree of support for mandatory charging and arrest policies among female victims of domestic violence, but a significant degree of uncertainty among these same women in their feelings about mandatory prosecution policies. In general, female victims of abuse appear to favour a system that puts an end to the immediate violence, but that allows them some involvement in the decision of Crown counsel whether or not to proceed with the prosecution of their partner. Many victims feel disempowered by the loss of all control over the handling of their case. In many cases, the prosecution policy conflicts with the victim’s desire to reconcile with her partner. Moreover, much of the frustration felt by victims appears to stem from the inadequate provision of information about the prosecution process itself, and about the progress of victims’ individual cases. These deficiencies in pro-prosecution policies as presently implemented will need to be addressed if victim endorsement of such policies is to be achieved.

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