Citizen monitoring of courts as a means of creating system change

WATCH has developed a highly effective court monitoring method involving citizen volunteers as a means of creating legal and policy system change and improving the administration of justice for victims of abuse. WATCH volunteers first entered a courtroom in Hennepin County, Minnesota (USA) in March 1993. Since that time WATCH trains 50 volunteers each year who, along with staff, monitor more than 4,500 court hearings regarding sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence cases. They are immediately recognized by the red clipboards they carry. These highly visible red clipboards serve to alert judges and court staff that they are being observed and monitored.

In the WATCH approach, the volunteer monitors note objectively observable behaviors by justice system personnel such as timeliness, audibility, inappropriate humor, and attentiveness to victims present. Their observations are reviewed by staff and followed up by phone with appropriate personnel including judges, attorneys, advocates and probation officers. The WATCH staff also monitors the case histories of chronic re-offenders, communicating concerns to the judicial system and, in some cases, the press.

WATCH first developed this form of visible citizen monitoring in 1992, after a group of women in Hennepin County, Minnesota responded to newspaper reports of a lax, revolving-door justice system which failed to take crimes of sexual assault and domestic abuse seriously. After meeting with representatives of the justice system as well as members of domestic abuse programs, it was determined that although there were good victim services in Hennepin County, Minnesota there was also a strong need for a public presence in the courtroom to hold the system accountable for its actions.

On October 2, 2008, WATCH organized a National Walk-in for Justice. In Minnesota, 65 volunteers and supporters gathered at the WATCH office to pick up their red clipboards before proceeding to the Hennepin County Government Center and courts. WATCH Executive Director, Marna Anderson told the crowd that although there had been significant progress in Hennepin County towards "creating courts that help people solve their problems rather than process their cases" the state budget crisis was now threatening that progress.  For example, the budget cuts have forced the reduction of sex crime investigators at the Minneapolis Police Department from ten to four as well as significant cuts at the Domestic Abuse Service Center. These cuts leave many women without assistance when applying for an order for protection.

Elected officials addressed the crowd and local media covered the event. Minneapolis City Council member, Don Samuels, credited WATCH's red clipboards with bringing violence against women and children out of the private sphere "where we deal with it with a wink, a nod and a whisper" and into the public sphere, "where citizens watch what is going on, write what is happening, and let the public see."

In addition, WATCH assisted other groups around the country in organizing similar events, supplying volunteers with advice, information, clipboards, cinch bags, and note pads. Events included:
•   St. Joseph County in South Bend, Indiana: the YMCA held a walk-in and press conference that focused on the improvements in the handling of domestic violence cases, particularly in getting guns out of the hands of abusers.  Plans to use state money to implement an electronic protection order registry were announced.
•   Kailua, Hawaii: Breaking the Silence held a walk-in to coincide with a high-profile domestic homicide sentencing. Demonstrators gathered outside the courtroom in support of the family of Henny Hartsock who was stabbed to death by her husband on January 10, 2008. The event, attended by local media, drew attention to violence against women and resulted in one reporter working on an investigative report on domestic violence in Hawaii.  
•   St. Croix and St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands: Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council held two walk-ins.  Local activists engaged local media in talking about the need to improve the system's response to violence against women, particularly against the backdrop of a struggling economy and rising unemployment that increase the vulnerability of women and children.

Court monitoring is an effective way to address many issues including violence against women, drunk driving, racial profiling, police brutality and livability crimes. This tactic represents a way that volunteers, who are independent of the system, can be engaged in ensuring court proceedings are just by noting observable behaviors of court personnel.  These written observations provide a detailed picture of court proceedings and enable staff to follow up with specific court personnel on concerns noted and make recommendations for system and policy changes.

WATCH has documented and reported on many systemic problems including: courtroom delays, problems prosecuting sexual assault crimes, barriers to women’s safety when domestic abusers are gone on arrival of police, inadequate supervision of violent offenders on probation, judicial demeanor, lack of sanctions for defendants who repeatedly violate No Contact orders, and budget cuts affecting advocacy services. WATCH promotes court monitoring across the country because their experience and that of others demonstrates that regular monitoring, clear reporting, and specific recommendations can lead to positive change.

This tactic is powerful and straightforward to implement, and can be effectively applied in many different arenas, not just the court system. WATCH volunteers are required to complete an interview process and background check, then attend a six-hour training on the basics of the criminal justice system and violence against women. Following that they receive a tour of the courts and shadow with a senior volunteer until they feel comfortable attending proceedings on their own.

While the WATCH volunteer process is extensive, it provides one way of doing court monitoring. There are many ways to do court monitoring. For example, an Alaskan grandmother from a small fishing village asked four of her elderly friends to accompany her to court for several days. The judge was not taking her granddaughter's domestic violence seriously and she wanted witnesses and support. The women brought their knitting and sat in the front row and kept an eye on things. By the end of the morning, the judge's curiosity got the better of him and he asked the grandmothers what they wanted. Since they had called their nearest shelter to find out the relevant laws, they were prepared with a list of needed changes to follow the law. Within six months they had transformed the practices of this court and only visit now and again to be sure the changes are permanent. The grandmothers ultimately changed the behavior of the judge and got better treatment for all victims. (Note: This story was re-told by Sarah Buehl in her article “Family Violence Court Watches: Improving Services to Victims by Documenting Practices”)

Citizen power can be used to draw wider public attention to gaps in a system and to put pressure onto officials to address these gaps. In particular in times of economic hardship, citizens need to be particularly vigilant in ensuring that the vulnerable members of society do not lose their support systems.

Source note: much of this summary information was taken from the WATCH newsletter, Volume 16, Issue 4, Autumn 2008. For more information go the WATCH website and watch the slide show below.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

The use of a consistent, recognizable, visible symbol that monitors are present can serve as a deterrent to human rights abuses.  It can be an effective way to draw media and public attention, raise awareness about a particular human rights issue, and put potential human rights violators on notice that they will be held accountable for their actions.  However, this approach can also place monitors at risk in highly repressive contexts.