Review of the effectiveness of specialist courts in other jurisdictions

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Review of the effectiveness of specialist courts in other jurisdictions

This report from the Department for Constitutional Affairs looks at specialist courts, (eg drugs or domestic violence courts) outside the UK and examines their effectiveness, the key factors in what makes a successful specialist court and whether such courts offer value for money. The results of the report are intended to inform current and future initiatives in England & Wales.

Title: Review of the effectiveness of specialist courts in other jurisdictions
Authors: Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson
Series: DCA Research series 3/05
Number of pages: 83
Date published: May 2005
Availability: Download full report PDF 401Kb


The roots of the specialist court approach can be traced back to indigenous and tribal justice systems and a serious effort is now underway to learn from these systems and to introduce some of their perspectives and techniques into Western courts. Commentators refer to a range of theoretical models when describing specialist courts. Community courts in particular invoke the principles of Restorative Justice, a systematic response to wrong-doing that identifies and takes steps to repair harm; involves all stakeholders; and transforms the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.

The report is not a traditional literature review, but an independent review of the 4 types of specialist court:

  • Drugs courts

  • Community courts

  • Domestic or family violence courts

  • Mental health courts


  • Willingness to take on a specialist role was mentioned by nearly all survey courts as a crucial criterion for specialist judges, as was the ability to ‘talk straight’ to defendants.

  • A traditional legal background alone is ineffective training for judges playing an active role in the problem-solving process that requires, in addition to analytical skills and legal knowledge, effective communication and creative thinking

  • In a significant departure from conventional judicial training, there was an emphasis in some courts on training judges and other members of the ‘court team’ together

  • Building the team approach is not without problems: research has revealed the potential for philosophical and professional differences to arise between treatment providers and specialist courts

  • Judges who worked therapeutically in drug courts experienced increased job satisfaction. Self-selection for the drug court assignment, regular reviews of participants’ progress and perception of participants’ gratitude were seen as factors contributing to judicial job satisfaction

  • Judicial monitoring was a key characteristic of the drug courts, community courts, mental health courts and one of the three domestic violence courts in the survey. Evaluation of one drug treatment court showed that retention rates in treatment were higher than in other treatment programmes without judicial supervision.

  • Where judicial monitoring is a feature of the specialist court, continuity of judge is seen as a vital factor in successful outcomes

  • The assignment of a dedicated prosecutor is a characteristic of most specialist courts. Commentators have identified tensions between this new role and traditional defence practice, and challenge the concept that defence and prosecution are now members of the same ‘team’.

  • Judges in community courts are expected to have a high profile in the local community and to maintain good contacts with the community leaders. This is outside the normal judicial role.

  • In some courts community input was obtained primarily through committees.

  • Managing the expectations of the community, and indeed of other criminal justice groups, was seen as important by several survey courts. As one community court judge has said ‘The truth is that problem-solving courts always have to fight the knee jerk reaction people have to throw everyone in jail’.

  • Every respondent in the survey described specialist court practice as ‘still evolving’,

  • None of specialist court in the survey had encountered difficulty in relation to the boundaries of its jurisdictional subject matter.


The measurement of success in specialist courts was the subject of much discussion. Most courts had reduced re-offending, the most obvious criterion for success, as an objective but other factors cited included:

  • reduction in delay in case processing

  • an increase in the number of individuals charged with an offence and in the proportion of guilty pleas

  • increased satisfaction and safety of victims of domestic violence

  • fewer cases discontinued due to the reluctance of witnesses to testify

  • a higher proportion of convictions

  • greater consistency in sentencing

  • greater compliance with the terms of community sentences

  • increased public confidence in the justice system.

Some courts also included in the definition of success broader social factors such as:

  • improvements in the physical and mental health of offenders and reduced deaths from drug overdoses

  • offenders who enter employment or education and obtain accommodation

  • more stable family relationships, including the return of children from the care system.

There can be significant costs associated with the establishment and operation of specialist courts. The sums involved depend on scale and the model adopted, with problem-solving courts requiring greater investment than those operating on traditional lines but with specialist personnel. The most significant cost drivers are likely to be:

  • set-up costs for recruitment of staff and the physical and organisational infrastructure, including IT systems

  • offender programmes

  • training

  • demands on the time of professional participants, especially the judiciary

  • extended representation of defendants throughout the period of supervision to enable defence lawyers to attend status hearings and out-of-court reviews

  • the ‘knock-on’ effect on the rest of the system due to diversion of resources

  • communication with the public and others about the purpose and work of the court

  • the higher level of victim/witness liaison and support required in family violence courts.

The potential cost benefits of the specialist approach stem primarily from any reduction in re-offending which results. The sums involved are difficult to quantify but they relate to avoiding the cost of incarceration or supervision of community sentences and the benefits to the community of reduced criminal activity. It is even harder to put a price on some of the success factors listed above concerning the social context of the offender. However, higher costs to the courts may be offset by greater efficiencies in other areas of the criminal justice system. In the Canberra family violence court, for example, the higher rate of early guilty pleas save over 800 police days at court per year, and around 250 to 300 witnesses are not required to attend court.

The authors find it difficult to draw any strong conclusions on value-for-money given the difficulties in measuring some of the benefits to the community.

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Last update: Monday, September 25, 2006

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