Domestic Violence Law Reforms: Reactions from the Trenches

Article excerpt

In recent years, feminists have worked hard to pressure society and the criminal justice system into taking domestic violence seriously. These efforts have resulted in more government funding and increased services to victims. In addition, there have also been legal and policy reforms which have affected the way cases are handled in the criminal justice system. This article reports on research on the reactions to those reforms by those most directly affected by them, the victims themselves and those who provide services to them.


In recent decades, one of the central goals of feminism has been to pressure society and the criminal justice system into taking domestic violence seriously (Dobash and Dobash, 1992; Schechter, 1982). Feminists were concerned about statistics which indicated how widespread the problem was and the secrecy in which it was held. They hoped that using the court would provide protection to women and reduce the incidence of domestic violence. These efforts have been successful on several levels. Criminal justice personnel no longer treat domestic violence as a family matter, out of the reach of the legal system. The police no longer take the perpetrator for a walk to discuss "keeping the little woman in line" and then return him home without further action. Instead, they make efforts to arrest and prosecute offenders. There have been legislative reforms which attempt to increase the arrest and conviction rate in domestic violence cases. The government has allocated a significant amount of money for research and the provision of services within the criminal justice system, as well as to provide services for the victims of domestic violence in the non-profit sector (Crowell and Burgess, 1996).

At the same time, feminist legal scholars have exposed the legal system as one which is patriarchal on several levels (e.g. Smart, 1992; Mackinnon, 1987; Rhode, 1990). Smart argues that the law is sexist in that it generally treats men better than women. There is widespread support for this disparity which exists in both the civil and criminal areas (Sugarman and Kay, 1990; Schafran, 1989). On another level, it is patriarchal in that "ideals of objectivity and neutrality which are celebrated in law are actually masculine values which have come to be taken as universal values" (Smart, 1992: 32). Feminists argue that the legal system in general does not represent women's interests or their ways of thinking and functioning. It is also insensitive to the social realities of women's lives. Scholars of legal language support this view when they point out that the language itself is gendered, emphasizing "rule-oriented" language (more "male") rather than "relational" language (more "female") (e.g. Cameron, 1998; Conley and O'Barr, 1998). Thus the power and the benefit of the law is more accessible to those who frame their claims in certain legally acceptable ways.

Not surprisingly, then, the effect of the increased seriousness with which domestic violence is treated by the criminal justice system has placed more women within the reach of the patriarchal legal system described by feminist legal scholars. Thus, the "success" of feminists in having the criminal justice system take domestic violence seriously comes at a price. There have been several legal reforms which specifically address the ways in which domestic violence is to be handled by the police and the courts, limiting the autonomy of victims themselves. Since the changes come within the framework of the patriarchal legal system, it means that punishment and prosecution are the goal for all domestic violence cases. This "one size fits all" approach leaves little room for a victim to make her own decisions about the best way to solve her problem. She is not asked for her assessment of her situation or encouraged to take control of her life; to the contrary, her wishes are often superseded by the new policies. …


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