The Politics of Place: Practice, Process, and Kinship in Domestic Violence Courts

Article excerpt

This article describes the processing of domestic violence cases in Trinidad, with implications for the implementation of domestic violence law more generally in other common law courts, including the U.S. It is based on fieldwork in magistrate's courts and a statistical analysis of domestic violence court records-the first of its kind for the English-speaking Caribbean. We identify a "politics of place" that makes courts "discordant locales" (Frohmann 2004), places in which persons requesting protection orders will encounter different forms of structural, practical, and ideological resistance to their claims to rights. We explore the extent to which applications for protection orders are dismissed, withdrawn, or awarded protective action, uncovering differences in case dispositions between the courts. Our analysis highlights the architecture, organization, and workloads of the courts, contrasting judicial styles, and the role of kinship ideology and practice in shaping litigants' use of the courts. We reveal a "public secret" (Taussig 1999) about domestic violence litigation of theoretical and practical interest to anthropologists, scholars and activists concerned with domestic violence, and students of law and society research.

Key words: domestic violence, anthropology of law, courts, kinship, Caribbean

In her study of rape and sexual assault cases, Frohmann coined the phrase "discordant locales" (2004:285) to reference places such as the "four-comer hustlers' territory" or "Center Heights," a section of the city where people go to purchase drugs or sex. As she shows, prosecutors only rarely try rape cases from discordant locales. Prosecutors know juries do not convict when an alleged sex crime has occurred in such a place.

We have another use for the term "discordant locale." We use the concept in this article to draw attention to another politics of place, a politics that transpires in courtrooms as legal professionals implement domestic violence law. Our analysis is based on a case study of two courts in Trinidad, a nation heir to British common-law tradition, possessed of a hierarchy of lower and higher courts similar to those of Great Britain and the United States, and the first nation in the English-speaking Caribbean to pass comprehensive domestic violence legislation.1 Although our case study is based in Trinidad, our discussion of the politics of place is of theoretical and practical interest to anthropologists, scholars and activists concerned with domestic violence, and students of law and society research, on four accounts.

First, anthropologists of law have explored for some time how, why, and to what extent law can (or cannot) realize lawmakers' intentions to protect subordinated peoples from the injustices they encounter. Critical studies in legal anthropology reveal the complex interplay and intersection of structures of domination that create and reinforce class, racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies, and demonstrate how legal codes and processes sometimes assist and sometimes fail those who seek legal redress. The anthropological study of domestic violence and law is more recent, but already promising in its theoretical and pragmatic implications. This research points with certitude both to the pervasiveness of domestic violence across time and space (Counts, Brown, and Campbell 1992; Levinson 1996), and to the fact that once such behavior is prohibited in law, its victims will turn in impressive numbers to the courts (Lazarus-Black 2001, forthcoming; Merry 1994, 1995, 2000; Ptacek 1999; Trinch 2003; Vatuk 2001 ; Winner 1998). Thus our study contributes to the international study of women and violence, and especially to local scholarship on women and domestic violence law in the English-speaking Caribbean (Bissessar 2000; Clarke 1998; Creque 1995; Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean [ECLAC] 2001; Ffolkes 1997; Gopaul and Cain 1996; Joseph, Henriques, and Ekeh 1998; Lazarus-Black 2001, 2003; Mohammed 1989, 1991; Pargass and Clarke 2003; Philips 2000; Pratt 2000; Rawlins 2000; Robinson 1999, 2000; Spooner 2001 ; Trinidad and Tobago Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2005). …