How Social Science Can Help Us Understand Why Family Courts May Discount Women's Testimony in Intimate Partner Violence Cases
Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3, 2019.
22 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2020
Date Written: 2019
Thirty years ago, legal scholars and social scientists began to note the legal systems’ skepticism of women in general and victims of gender-based violence in particular. Despite increased public awareness about domestic violence, female victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) continue to find their credibility discounted. Deborah Tuerkheimer coined the term “credibility discount” to describe how the criminal legal system responds to women’s reports of sexual violence by discounting their credibility at every step of the process, from initial reports to law enforcement and prosecutorial discretion through judicial and jury decisions. Deborah Epstein and Lisa Goodman expanded the dialogue on credibility discounting to include the experiences of female victims of IPV in legal and social service settings. IPV victims often access family courts for injunctive relief, child custody and visitation orders, and financial relief following separation from an abusive partner, a time period during which they are at a heightened lethality risk. Consequently, credibility discounting by family courts may prove particularly dangerous for victims of IPV.
This Article builds upon the work done thus far on the intersection of gender and credibility in the family courts by reviewing both psychological research and legal scholarship examining factors that may contribute to the perseverance of credibility discounting of IPV victims. As part of this discussion, we raise potential psychological misperceptions or assumptions that underlie the discounting of people’s credibility, including factors that may be particularly pertinent to women reporting IPV. We further consider the implications of these misperceptions in family court settings. We hope this advances the discussion on remedies for credibility discounting to ensure that victims receive just treatment as they navigate the legal system.
Part I of this Article reviews the family court’s role in IPV cases and how it can perpetuate credibility discounting. Part II discusses gender biases in the legal system that have the potential to propagate credibility discounting of IPV victims navigating the family court system. Part III explores general psychological theory and associated empirical evidence and considers how theory can shed light on why credibility discounting may persist in family courts. Part IV provides suggestions for ways to mitigate gender bias demonstrated in the credibility discounting of IPV victims in family courts.
Keywords: Domestic violence, family court, gender bias, credibility discount
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