On March 8, 2011, Cornell Law School's Avon Global Center for Women & Justice was honored to host its third U.S. Department of State International Visitors Group on Women & Justice. The program aims to promote understanding of different legal systems and appreciation of the rule of law. U.S. Embassies nominated leading figures in their respective fields to participate in the program. The March delegation to Cornell hailed from 15 countries, and included a judge, public prosecutors, civil society advocates, attorneys, and ministry officials from diverse regions and countries including Afghanistan, Taiwan, Ecuador, India, Mozambique, and Jamaica.
The Center developed a day-long program for the delegation centered on the theme "Addressing Domestic Violence in New York State: Challenges and Innovations." Professor Cynthia Bowman, Dorothea S. Clarke Professor at Law at Cornell Law School, moderated a panel discussion. Professor Bowman drew upon her extensive experience and research in U.S. and Sub-Saharan African family law, women's rights and feminist jurisprudence, and highlighted key issues in addressing domestic violence in the United States and New York State in particular. Distinguished speakers included Heather Campbell (Education Director at Advocacy Center, an Ithaca-based nonprofit organization that provides services for victims of domestic violence), Kristine Shaw (Attorney and Law Guardian working closely with the Integrated Domestic Violence Court in Ithaca, New York), and Elizabeth Brundige (Associate Director of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School).
Discussion points included common barriers to justice for domestic violence survivors, and lessons learned from the successes and challenges of New York State's Integrated Domestic Violence Court (IDVC) system.
Ms. Heather Campbell reflected upon her experiences as a victim advocate to describe challenges that domestic violence survivors typically face when interacting with the court system. Ms Campbell also outlined concrete examples of how NGOs tailor services to respond to survivor needs through advocacy, shelter, and planning services.
Ms. Kristine Shaw brought the perspective of a defense attorney, describing some of the practical tensions between ensuring victim protection and guaranteeing due process rights for the defendant. Ms. Shaw also explained how the perpetrator's parental rights and matters of child custody factor into the equation.
Comparing and contrasting their respective vantage points as a victim advocate and respondent attorney, Ms. Campbell and Ms. Shaw shared views on advancements in New York State's handling of domestic violence cases. For example, a key innovation is the IDVC system through which a single judge is assigned to hear multiple case types – criminal, family and matrimonial – that relate to one family where the underlying issue is domestic violence. This model can lead to more informed judicial decision-making, and can address some of the problems that occur when victims and their families are required to appear in different courts and before different judges, such as inconsistency of court orders and potentially conflicting court hearings. Programs providing alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation programs and counseling, have also proven effective in certain cases.
Ms. Elizabeth Brundige described an on-going study by the Avon Global Center and partner organizations examining the experience of domestic violence survivors who become criminal defendants for a crime directly relating to their abuse(for example, domestic violence survivors who harm or kill their abusers, or are coerced by their abusers to commit or conspire in a crime). According to statistics, the vast majority of women prisoners in New York State have been victims of violence and indeed, many are incarcerated for crimes related to their abuse. These survivor-defendants face particular barriers to justice, including misinterpretation or misapplication of the law (for example, the law's requirement of "imminent danger" and "proportionality" in asserting self defense), bias and lack of understanding and training on domestic violence issues on the part of law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. Ms. Brundige articulated how these factors implicate the survivor-defendants' international human rights to non-discrimination, equality, human dignity, and a fair trial, and how international human rights norms can be invoked as advocacy tools to compel government action to protect the rights of domestic violence survivor-defendants.
Members of the international delegation engaged in a lively discussion with the speakers, including pointed questions and the exchange of experiences, viewpoints, and ideas for innovations. One of the key points on which the group reached a consensus is that a coordinated multi-sector and multi-agency approach is critical and the only comprehensive way to address domestic violence on the individual case level and from a public policy standpoint.
The delegation's visit also included remarks by Cornell Law School Dean Stewart Schwab , and presentations by Sara Lulo (Executive Director, Avon Global Center) and Professor Sital Kalantry (Faculty Director, Avon Global Center) on the Center's work and projects to end international gender violence and increase access to justice for women and girls.