Erie County Court Watch Program

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By: Abbi Fuhrken

One in four women and one in seven men experience intimate partner violence. Erie County is not exempt from this harsh reality as Erie County experienced one of its highest rates in domestic violence fatalities in 2019. In an effort to respond to this crisis, the University at Buffalo School of Law Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic (FVWRC), the Family Justice Center, and other domestic violence service providers are collaborating to develop a court watch program for domestic violence cases.

Court watch programs have proven to be an effective tool for assessing where improvements are needed in response to cases involving domestic violence. The goal of this program is to maintain a standard of “procedural justice” where domestic violence is evaluated from a procedural point of view, making sure each victim is shown respect, understands the proceedings, and has proper access to community programs and legal representation. The goal is to have this program in Family Court as well as in the town and village courts in Erie County. Because Family Court is predominately online due to COVID-19, we anticipate starting this program in the town and village courts.

IMG_2504Funded by the Dr. Catherine Cerulli ’ 92 Women, Children & Social Justice Advocacy Award, my summer fellowship involved researching current court procedures in both family court and in the town court about how they conduct domestic violence proceedings and collecting information from various court watch programs throughout the country. We then formulated a plan for developing our own program in Erie County. Thereafter I was in communication with The Fund for Modern Courts about the types of programs they have developed, and now have a point of contact to help guide the formation of our own program. I then had the opportunity to work with domestic violence service providers in our community to discuss the issues we are seeing in our courts regarding domestic violence cases. In doing so, the FVWRC is creating a court watch program that monitors issues in the following areas:

      Accessibility of Facility      

  • General accessibility of the building
  • Security
  • Waiting areas
  • Availability of community resources

Court Proceedings

  • Use of plain language during proceedings
  • Explanation of the orders
  • Assistance in filling out paperwork
  • General issues regarding treatment of victims

These programs will train volunteer court watchers to observe public proceedings in Family Court and in the town and village courts of Erie County; and to evaluate the courts using a questionnaire specifically tailored to domestic violence cases. The Clinic also anticipates collecting information to determine if there are areas in which our courts could improve to create a safe and just environment.

In creating this court watch system for Erie County, all domestic violence prevention partners want to ensure our courts are trauma-informed, and that victims of domestic violence are treated with respect. Research has shown that the most important factor contributing to how a litigant views the court system is not whether they “win or lose,” but instead how they felt they were being treated during the process. Domestic violence can leave deep emotional scars and we hope this program will prevent re-traumatizing a person who has experienced our court system because of domestic violence.


Name: Abbi Fuhrken

Name of Fellowship: Dr. Catherine Cerulli ’ 92 Women, Children & Social Justice Advocacy Award

Placement: University at Buffalo School of Law Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “The importance of communication between different agencies.”