Domestic Violence and Court Services During COVID-19 Commentary
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Domestic Violence and Court Services During COVID-19

The ‘shelter in place’ orders during COVID-19 have resulted in a surge in domestic violence in both the U.S. and globally. Isolation is a feature of coercive control, and the quarantine has been used by abusers to further isolate and terrorize women and children. Additionally, COVID-19 is also being used by abusers as a reason to keep women separated from their jobs, supportive networks, including friends and families, and even their children, compounding fear and anxiety.

In communities around the world, the inability to safely contact people outside the home has also cut victims off from necessary services and support. This has had a ripple effect on victim accessibility to shelters, outreach programs, advocacy and judicial systems that help enforce abuser accountability. These are very dangerous times for women and children at risk for domestic and sexual violence.

Pandemics and Natural Disasters Increase Domestic Violence

France and Argentina both have reported a 30% and 25% increase in domestic violence calls respectively. Brazil reports a 40% increase, and Covid-19 has impacted women at risk for domestic violence in infection hotspots in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Italy and China. In my home state of Minnesota in the U.S., during the first week of the ‘lockdown’ two-thirds of all calls to police were for incidents of domestic violence. COVID-19 has created a perfect storm blending increased need for help, a concurrent decrease in advocacy, and widespread victim isolation.

Because of the risk victims take in seeking help or confronting their abusers, these statistics most likely do not document the real impact of COVID-19 on those most vulnerable. Immigrant and undocumented women are least likely to report violence because of they fear the repercussions of law enforcement involvement, including the potential for deportation. Minority populations continue to be disproportionately incarcerated in the criminal justice system, which can also deter women from seeking help.

Domestic violence thrives in silence and has long been considered a private matter within families. Awareness that abuse happening in the home is a legitimate crime has been growing in recent years. Advocates like Global Rights for Women and other organizations have worked tirelessly to ensure that COVID-19 does not become a free-for-all for abusers.

For this reason, globally, many elected officials and community leaders have stated that keeping shelters is a priority during this crisis. Nonetheless, natural disasters and pandemics create scarcity, and women’s rights and access to services are usually diminished or disregarded in emergencies. There is still much, much more work to do to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t compound gender and racial inequities.

Domestic Violence and the Courts

Insightful leaders in law enforcement and the judiciary who are aware of the dynamics of domestic violence are looking at ways to keep a gendered lens on COVID-19 and serve women at risk and ensure their accessibility to orders for protection. Yet the complications from COVID-19 and the need for social distancing are even more challenging when resources are reallocated.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis systems everywhere need reforms to adequately address the pandemic of violence against women worldwide. Now, advocates are finding that only the most egregious cases of abuse are being handled in law enforcement and the courts because of lack of access for victims. COVID-19 puts a spotlight on how ongoing judicial reform is necessary in cases of domestic and sexual violence.

For example, the requirement for filing orders for protection in person is often a barrier in the best of times, it is extremely challenging now.

The core goal of all domestic violence cases is victim safety, and COVID-19 has put a strain on accessing orders for protection without delays, especially in an emergency.

In the United States, many courts are limiting the days or hours in-person cases are being heard and enforcing the need for social distancing in courtrooms. Some courts are pre-screening visitors for symptoms of the virus and aggressively limiting who may be present for hearings.

In some countries, restrictions in the law make the issuance of orders for protection nearly impossible during COVID-19 social distancing mandates. Even for emergency protective orders, independent evidence may be required that supports victims’ claims of violence and the appearance of the victim in court. In many countries, these emergency orders expire within a few days or even hours before the victim could obtain a longer-term order.

If the victim lives in a community with a curfew or lockdown, they may need permission to travel to a safe house or shelter.

Victims also lose legal aid without a crucial in-person connection to their public defenders and advocates during COVID-19, going into their cases unprepared and without support. In an order for protection hearing, victims usually need to “show cause” and may not have the skills to communicate that effectively to a judge.

The form needed to file an order for protection may be available online, but if internet use is limited by the abuser, or for rural populations, cell phone and internet connection is spotty, it can be challenging to access those forms. Before COVID-19 people in those situations often used a library or community center to gain access to the application, but now they are closed. Victims also may believe the courts are closed even when they are not.

If the victim is a parent, the need for a “first appearance” in court is imperative because of child custody concerns. In cases of child neglect, fact-finding has been postponed until courts fully reopen. Most courts do not allow children to be present in domestic and sexual violence cases, and during COVID-19 people who might help victims are in quarantine, and there are no childcare centers open, except for first responders.

Compound these issues with job loss, insecure housing, lack of transportation, damage to property or medical bills. Getting public assistance for support in these situations is often restricted without an immediate court order.

It is clear that courts need to adapt to these challenges, including holding more remote proceedings to remove some of these barriers. However, not everyone has access to video conferencing tools, and phone calls limit the ability of judges and advocates to ensure the identity and credibility of who is on the phone. Some cases can be held remotely by phone, but some cases are not scheduled at all.

Law enforcement and accountability for abusers is also facing challenges by COVID-19. In many countries, police have been hesitant to make arrests unless there is evidence of physical injury. Arrests may not result in abuser detention because of the fear of the virus in prisons or jails. Conversely, survivors fear infection from the virus and the abuser should they return home from being incarcerated.

Victim-Centered Solutions

What are the solutions to these seemingly insurmountable problems? Fortunately, there are people and organizations working hard to find creative solutions that result in justice for victims of domestic and sexual violence. Here’s what will mitigate barriers:

Train best-practices for victim services. Cross-cooperation with law enforcement, advocates and the judiciary, also known as a Community Coordinated Response (CCR), is what Global Rights for Women and other systems reform proponents believe is the best approach for victim-centered advocacy with community-driven solutions.

Enforce perpetrator accountability. Law enforcement and courts need to weigh the risks to the victim and the community during a natural disaster or pandemic using a gender lens to make determinations.

Reform barriers to justice. Acknowledge that the complications victims experience in filing orders for protection are compounded by both the barriers to in-person filing, as well as COVID-19-related barriers.

Improve access to court proceedings. Courts need to make better use of technologies to help resolve obstacles and increase access to legal aid. If domestic violence victims cannot access court services, there is often no other remedy or recourse available to them.

Recognize increased gender-based violence during natural disasters and pandemics. Public policy and resource allocations should be based on a clear understanding of gender-based violence that supports the most vulnerable.


Cheryl Thomas is a human rights attorney and founder of Global Rights for Women; an advocacy group specifically focused on the rights of women and works with international partners on systems change and reform to end domestic and sexual violence. Find out more about Global Rights for Women here.


Suggested citation: Cheryl Thomas, Domestic Violence and Court Services During COVID-19, JURIST – Professional Commentary, April 25, 2020,

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