The Domestic Violence Treatment Option court (DVTO) was created in 2000 as a response to the high rates of domestic violence, a significant First Nations population that felt victimized by the formal justice system whose culture and values were inconsistent with their own, and a perception that relatively few victims actually reported domestic assaults to the police. When domestic assaults were reported, a high proportion of cases were stayed or withdrawn because the complainant was unwilling to testify or if she did, she changed her evidence in order to exculpate the accused.
There was a developing consensus that the formal justice system, being adversarial, punitive and offender focused, was not reducing the incidence of violence, in part because the formal justice system was not meeting the needs of victims. Typical criminal justice interventions appeared to have little impact on repeat offending. The DVTO court, on the other hand, operates on different premises. It is a therapeutic alternative that helps motivate offenders to take responsibility for the violent behaviour early in the justice system process and to understand and ‘unlearn’ this behaviour. At the same time, it uses the authority of judges to monitor the behaviour of offenders in order to maximize the safety of victims.
The Yukon DVTO is premised on the belief that many more victims would be prepared to participate in a criminal court-based process that offers a therapeutic treatment alternative to offenders or that requires the offender to acknowledge responsibility by entering an early guilty plea. To be effective, this alternative must, at the same time, hold the offender accountable in a meaningful way and must not compromise the safety of the complainant.
The Yukon DVTO provides an alternative procedure for dealing with domestic violence offenders in criminal court. It does not divert offenders away from criminal court. To the contrary, its objective is to bring more offenders in to the justice system. It offers an alternative based on principles of therapeutic jurisprudence, to encourage offenders to accept responsibility for their actions at a very early stage of the proceedings. More victims are encouraged to disclose their victimization, knowing that their partners can opt for counseling and programming under court supervision, and thus be eligible for a community based sentence.
Overview of DVTO Court Process
The DVTO Court has a specialized caseload and is handled by dedicated judges and key partners such as victim service workers, treatment program personnel, police, Crown attorneys, defence counsel and social workers. The goals of the Court are as follows:
- encourage more disclosures of domestic violence;
- provide for early intervention;
- provide a non-adversarial, therapeutic court-based alternative to formal criminal court as a means of responding to domestic violence;
- reduce the high collapse rate for domestic violence charges;
- hold offenders accountable in a meaningful way;
- provide a therapeutic sentencing option to offenders under the close supervision of the court and treatment professionals;
- encourage early acceptance of responsibility and early guilty pleas by perpetrators of domestic violence; and
- provide protection, information and support for victims.
The DVTO process begins with a report to police. In response to the report of domestic violence, the RCMP attend and investigate the complaint using a special risk assessment guide. If a decision is made not to arrest the offender, the police will typically impose conditions on the defendant that address these risks, including a no-contact order and a requirement to report to a bail supervisor.
Both Legal Aid and the Crown's office have assigned specific lawyers to the DVTO sitting of the court. This assignment allows for the development of expertise and provides continuity, allowing the same counsel to take a case to its completion. Duty counsel treat this sitting of the court like a circuit point, meaning that he/she assesses the accused's eligibility for legal aid at the time of court appearance, avoiding a further adjournment and delay.
The RCMP set all first appearances involving domestic violence for the next sitting of the DVTO Court. This is a specialized docket with specially assigned judges and is in session every other Monday. The delay between "charge" and court appearance is thus substantially reduced and is an essential aspect of fast-tracking domestic violence cases. If the accused is detained or released on bail, he will appear on the next DVTO Court date.
Holding court at the same time and in the same courtroom every other week facilitates attendance by resource persons, such as representatives from the Family Violence Prevention Unit, Victim Services, Family and Children’s Services, and Probation Services. Prior to the commencement of court, a pre-court meeting is held where all key players (excluding the judge) attend to discuss cases that are on the court docket for the day. Information is shared about the accused, victim, and offence, and issues are discussed or recommendations are made amongst the parties. This assists in the fast-tracking of cases because all parties are usually in agreement prior to court commencing.
Information about the DVTO is provided to the defendant at the first court appearance. The DVTO is available to the defendant only upon application. The defendant must be prepared to accept responsibility for the offence as a condition of eligibility. This application is made at the first or second court appearance. Adjournments are only granted for specific reasons, for example, to obtain further disclosure, and normally for two weeks only. When an application is made for the DVTO, the court adjourns the case for two weeks to allow the Family Violence Prevention Unit to conduct an intake assessment and assess eligibility for the treatment program. If the defendant is found to be ineligible for the DVTO, he is returned to the formal court process. Ineligibility for the program, though infrequent, is usually due to serious mental health problems or severe substance abuse problems. Occasionally, the program will give conditional acceptance to a defendant. This means that the defendant must complete some other form of programming prior to entering SAP.
Once a defendant is accepted to the treatment program, a plea must be entered into the court. A formal guilty plea must be entered prior to the commencement of the treatment program. If the defendant chooses to plead not guilty, his case is referred back to the formal court process.
The treatment recommendations are presented to the court and may be incorporated in an undertaking or in a recognizance where one is already in existence. Modest modifications of the treatment plan may take place during subsequent court reviews. The defendant may have other needs besides treatment, which are addressed by Probation Services and outlined in a report. After the defendant has pleaded guilty, the SAP conducts a lengthy clinical assessment prior to commencing treatment. Once this has been completed the defendant begins to attend the treatment group. While the defendant is attending treatment, the court undertakes regular monthly reviews of the defendant's progress. Reviews may also be initiated by the bail supervisor or by treatment personnel. A defendant may be returned to the formal court process and sentenced as a result of failing to follow the treatment plan, missing treatment sessions, or as a result of not participating in group sessions.
Every effort is made to address the victim's needs and concerns while the defendant is participating in the treatment program. Safety considerations are given the highest priority. Victim Services can assist the victim and provide information about available services. Further, a counselor in SAP will invite the victim to participate in the defendant's assessment process through a partner assessment. The victim is also contacted throughout the offender's treatment to discuss any concerns that may arise. The victim is invited to participate in the defendant’s assessment process. The court encourages the victim to be heard at all stages of its process and may direct that appropriate court documents be made available to them.
Probation Services identifies other programming needs and normally prepares a report for the court to assist with sentencing. Victim Services, defence counsel and Crown counsel provide their recommendations to Probation Services. The court normally imposes the sentence after the defendant has completed the treatment offered by the Family Violence Prevention Unit and other recommended programming has been identified or started
Sentencing in the DVTO court will take place after the completion of the required programming. The required programming will always include the 15-week Spousal Abuse Program (SAP) which involves group meetings facilitated by counselors and a Relapse Prevention Program which may last for several additional weeks. Referrals to other programs such as alcohol and drug counseling, grief counseling, parenting programs or couples counseling may be made. There may be a requirement to start this programming before sentencing takes place.
The sentence will give credit for the early guilty plea and reflect the participation and progress of the offender through the treatment process as well as the Criminal Code sentencing principles. The sentence imposed will normally be a community disposition: conditional sentence of imprisonment plus probation, or simply a period of probation. The offender may receive an actual jail sentence if he has breached his bail conditions. In all cases, however, the disposition will reflect the reduction in risk factors resulting from the successful completion of the programming undertaken.
The Yukon DVTO court has been evaluated by the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, University of Calgary. The evaluation is available here.
The evaluation concluded that the DVTO court was effective in dealing with domestic violence cases:
Overall, we would conclude that the DVTO system and SAP as a whole are very effective. While each of these components of the overall system has some claim to achieving individual objectives, the interactive effect seems to be the strongest in preventing re-assaults with a very difficult client group. The DVTO model, which combines a comprehensive justice system approach with a treatment program for batterers, provides an excellent model for dealing with spousal assault and abuse.