Read more about the colloquium in "Seeking Justice for India's Women" by participant Judge John Rowley, of the Tompkins County Integrated Domestic Violence Court in Ithaca, New York.
Judges' Colloquium on Women and Justice
October 27, 2011
New Delhi, India
The conference on “Gender-Based Violence and Justice in South Asia,” organized by Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and the Jindal Global Law School, ended with a session designed to promote productive dialogue among judges working in a variety of contexts. This “Judges’ Colloquium on Women and Justice” was overseen by the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life of Brandeis University, an organization with a long experience in offering programs to members of both domestic and international judiciaries.
The Judges’ Colloquium on Women and Justice brought together judges from Bangladesh, Guyana, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the United States to discuss how issues of gender and violence affect judicial work. The participants came from supreme and high courts across the region, as well as both federal and state level courts in the United States. Notable was the representation of two “specialized courts” – the Special Court for Antihuman Trafficking in Mumbai and the Tompkins County Integrated Domestic Violence Court of New York State. The experience of the international bench on these issues was represented by a judge of the Caribbean Court of Justice, formerly a justice of the Supreme Court of Guyana.
The aim of the colloquium was two-fold: to provide a forum where participants could discuss the challenges of their respective courts vis-à-vis gender justice and exchange experiences and best practices; and to encourage cross-border networking among judges around these issues. The colloquium was introduced by Leigh Swigart, the Brandeis Center’s Director of Programs in International Justice and Society, and C. Raj Kumar, Dean of the Jindal Global Law School.
The colloquium began with a discussion of how judges might best overcome unconscious gender biases in the courtroom. Participants recognized that, like all human beings, judges are products of their societies and have been inculcated with the same values as their fellow citizens. It is therefore incumbent upon judges to become aware of their own prejudices so that their decision-making can be as unbiased as possible. This is particularly important when ruling on cases involving sexual violence or sexual discrimination, given the deep-seated nature of societal attitudes toward gender roles and behavior.
South Asian judges acknowledged that there is still a tendency in their societies to consider women responsible for their own victimization if they have not dressed modestly or have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. A U.S. judge characterized this as the “she asked for it” interpretation of sexual violence, one that is no longer acceptable in American courts. Judges may also carry assumptions about class-based behavior, it was noted, assuming that it is the disadvantaged classes that engage most frequently in domestic violence or selective feticide. These assumptions do not necessarily tally with reality, however. As one participant pointed out, “we know that violence happens in all sectors of society.”
It was agreed that judicial training is of paramount importance if women are to be treated equitably by justice systems. This training should focus on helping judges to understand and apply existing laws that can be beneficial to women and other vulnerable groups. In the United States, for example, victims can be protected by testifying in court by closed circuit television or, if underage, by remaining anonymous. But such protections are meaningless if judges do not know about or take advantage of them. It was also pointed out that judges should be encouraged to make use of the international treaties ratified by their countries, given the high standard of protection generally found under international law.
Training focused on legal education is not enough, however. It was also agreed that many judges need training that will help them to change their attitudes. One participant observed, “We have to be trained to understand bias. When you’re trained to identify bias, you take a step away from it consciously, and then you can make an impartial judgment. If you can train a judge to identify bias – through sensitization – you can move from equality on the books to real equality.” If there is resistance to the idea of undergoing a “gender sensitization” workshop, it was suggested that it might instead be styled a “human rights” workshop.
Participants brought up a number of other factors that impact women’s access to justice in their courts. Legal aid should be provided from the very beginning of a case to victims and plaintiffs lacking sufficient resources. Cases involving crimes of sexual violence should be as quickly resolved as possible to ensure the well-being of victims. And the necessity of sensitizing other actors in the justice system to the special needs of victims of sexual violence – in particular police officers – was emphasized by several judges.
In conclusion, the assembled judges suggested that the following measures should be enacted in their respective systems:
- There should be mandatory continuing legal education for judges with an emphasis on gender sensitivity training;
- Judges should adhere to a reasonable time frame in resolving cases involving gender violence;
- Courts should make sure that opinions, orders, and motions related to issues of gender violence are made public and disseminated to judges across their justice systems. Electronic filing of cases should help in this regard.
- Judges should have access to information technology and be trained to use it, in order both to avoid undue delays in delivering justice and to consult relevant jurisprudence from other jurisdictions.
- Judges should take an active role in making the criminal codes and procedures of their courts more friendly to women;
- Judges must protect victims from ridicule and harassment in the courtroom or by other actors in the justice system; and
- Finally, courts must show victims of sexual violence they will be able to attain justice.
Participants of the Judges’ Colloquium on Women and Justice:
- Hon'ble Justice M. Imman Ali, Supreme Court of Bangladesh
- Hon’ble Madam Justice Desiree Bernard, Caribbean Court of Justice (Guyana)
- Hon’ble Swati Chauhan, Special Court for Antihuman Trafficking in Mumbai
- Hon’ble Mr. Justice A.K. Ganguly, Supreme Court of India
- Hon'ble Justice Naima Haider, Supreme Court of Bangladesh
- Hon’ble Mrs. Justice Sushila Karki, Supreme Court of Nepal
- Hon’ble Virginia Kendall, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
- Hon’ble Ms. Justice Gita Mittal, Delhi High Court (India)
- Hon’ble Barbara Rothstein, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington
- Hon’ble John Rowley, Integrated Domestic Violence Court, Tompkins County, New York
- Hon’ble Mr. Justice Arjan K. Sikri, Acting Chief Justice, Delhi High Court
- Hon’ble Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane, Supreme Court of Sri Lanka
- Hon’ble Ann C. Williams, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit