Recognised by the Future Policy Award 2014, Austria is a world pioneer in introducing a right to not only legal, but also psychosocial court assistance, as a form of support for victims of violence. The key objectives of the policy are to safeguard the rights of victims and empower them in the context of court proceedings. The Ministry of Justice entrusts specialised organisations to carry out needs assessment as well as provide support for victims of violence in court proceedings. It also provides the required funding to implement these measures and train law enforcement and judicial staff to improve their understanding of and responses to gender-based violence cases.
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- Amendments to the Austrian Criminal and Civil Procedure Acts introduced the pioneering measure of a legally enshrined right to psychosocial and legal court assistance for all victims of violent crimes.
- This legal measure aims at safeguarding survivors’ rights and empowering them during legal proceedings.
- Specialised victim support organisations are entrusted with implementation.
- Regular quality assurance, review and monitoring mechanisms are in place and implemented.
- Criminal Procedure Reform Act of 1999, § 65 Z 1 lit a and b (Österreichische Strafprozessordnung, StPO). [In German]
- Criminal Procedures Reform Act of 1999, Article VI (Strafprozessnovelle 1999, I Nr. 55/1999). [In German]
- First Austrian Federal Act on Protection Against Domestic Violence, passed Nov 1996 (Bundesgesetz zum Schutz vor Gewalt in der Familie – GeSchG, BGBl. Nr. 759/1996). [In German]
- Criminal Procedures Reform Act of 2004 (Strafprozessreformgesetz, BGBl. I Nr. 19/2004). [In German]
- Second Anti-Violence Act of 2009 (Zweites Gewaltschutzgesetz, 2.GeSchG, BGBl. I Nr. 40/2009). [In German]
In Austria, as in other countries around the world, survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual violence and abuse can face a challenging period of time when they decide to report a crime to the police and take their case to court. Too few cases of (sexual) abuse and violence against women are reported to the police, and of those cases do make it to court, a minority lead to conviction.
Specialised victim support organisations acknowledge a current lack of awareness and understanding of the specific dynamics of sexual and gender-based violence, in particular intimate partner violence, by law enforcement agencies and the judiciary. This doesn’t only hamper prosecution, but can also contribute to a re-traumatisation or secondary victimisation of the survivor. Protecting the rights of a survivor of violent crime is an important measure to empower survivors and increase their access to justice, in particular in the context of gender-based violence.
Austria is a world pioneer in introducing a legally enshrined right for survivors of violent crime to both legal and psychosocial court assistance. The Federal Ministry of Justice entrusts specialised victims’ protection organisations to provide psychosocial court assistance and to organise legal court assistance in cooperation with specially trained lawyers and sets quality standards for provision.
Since the introduction of a legal right support for victims of violence, the available budget has nearly tripled, and has been maintained in recent years, despite austerity pressures. A steadily increasing uptake indicates that there is a high demand, and feedback from survivors corroborates the benefit of court assistance, in particular psychosocial.
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- The human and financial resources required for the implementation of this legal provision are ensured by the Ministry of Justice and have continued to increase to accommodate growing demand, even throughout a period of government budgetary austerity measures.
- Through the introduction of a legally enshrined commitment to gender budgeting at all government levels, Austria has a conducive framework for sustainable resource allocations for gender justice measures.
- The legislative measure highlights the protection of survivors’ rights.
- Whilst the law related to psychosocial and legal court assistance covers all victims of violent crime, it ensures a gender sensitive approach through specific guidelines and quality standards for women and girl victims of male violence and trafficking.
- Overall, the legal framework on violence against women, in particular with regard to intimate partner violence, is advanced and has provided a “conducive environment” for the development of policy and legislative advances in this field.
- Specialised training for professionals, in particular in law enforcement and the judiciary, are part of measures related to quality management (regular training of public prosecutors has also been introduced).
- If a current initiative to ensure a legal basis of high quality standards in court assistance for all types of victims is adopted, a strong framework for further training measures will be provided.
- The law emerged out of an initiative by civil society organisations, notably support organisations for victims of sexual abuse.
- The Ministry of Justice entrusts specialised organisations with the implementation of the provisions under the law.
- Annual round tables hosted by provincial courts engage civil society actors/service providers in monitoring and evaluation.
- Information is made available in different languages, ensuring access also for non-German speakers in Austria.
- Provisions for monitoring and evaluation include: an external evaluation that was conducted after the initial years of implementation, regular monitoring and evaluation at province level through annual round tables and monitoring through annual reporting by implementing partners.
- The legal provisions have been reviewed and adapted since their introduction to respond to further identified needs (e.g. extension to court assistance for civil court proceedings).
- The improved relationship and better mutual understanding between women’s and victim support organisations, as well as law enforcement and the judiciary, has been highlighted as a particularly beneficial “side effect” of this legal provision, which improves the overall response to gender-based violence.
- Training of all professions involved in court cases on domestic and sexual violence has increased.
- The legal right to psychosocial and legal court assistance in Austria, and its implementation, take into consideration context and specificities and includes ways to address barriers to access for different victim groups.
The introduction of the formal legal right to court assistance emerged from several decades of increased attention victim protection in law enforcement and judicial proceedings. More precisely, it was introduced following strong advocacy by civil society organisations – in particular organisations that work with survivors, who had already been providing court assistance (to the extent that their means allowed) to their clients for a long time. These organisations were acutely aware of the challenges that survivors of sexual violence and abuse, and other forms of gender-based violence face when they decide to report to the police and press charges.
In order to prevent secondary victimisation and re-traumatisation, and to empower survivors (which will also enable them to make a statement in court), the role of specialised support before and during the court procedure was acknowledged. Organisations working with child abuse survivors initiated a successful pilot project for court assistance in the late 1990s, and the Criminal Procedures Reform Act of 1999, Article IV (BGBl. Nr.55/1999) provided a legal basis for the possibility for specialised organisations to access funding from the Ministry of Justice to provide support for victims of violence in Court, albeit not yet as legal right.
The above-described developments occurred in the context of the introduction of the first Austrian Federal Act on Protection Against Domestic Violence (Bundesgesetz zum Schutz vor Gewalt in der Familie – GeSchG) that entered into force in May 1997. This law introduced eviction orders and barring/protection orders, as well as the setting up of intervention centres for domestic violence. With these provisions, inspired by the legislation and coordinated community response approach pioneered in Duluth, Minnesota (another Future Policy Award winner), the legislation has served as a model for legislation in many other European countries.
The second Anti-Violence Act (in force since 1 June 2009) introduced further improvements regarding the protection of, and support for, victims of violence, such as the extension of the right to psychosocial court assistance to civil proceedings that are factually related to the criminal proceedings for which court assistance was granted before (e.g. divorce, custody…). The latest amendment dates back to autumn 2013 and enlarges the protection of children affected by violence. Every person residing in Austria, regardless of their origin or nationality, is now entitled to protection against violence.
Despite a progressive legal framework in Austria, particularly with regard to intimate partner violence, survivors are faced with important challenges in bringing perpetrators to justice through the legal system. The key objective of this legislation is to protect and empower survivors of violent crimes and ensure that their rights are safeguarded within the context of court proceedings.
The legal basis for the court assistance in the criminal procedure was first introduced as a new § 49a in the Criminal Procedure Act (Strafprozessordnung, StPO) entering into force on 1 January 2006. The provision describes the right to psychosocial and legal court assistance for victims of violent crimes, dangerous threats or of encroachment to their sexual integrity, as well as to their relatives, to the extent necessary to safeguard their rights.
Psychosocial court assistance includes the preparation of those affected by the process and its associated emotional stress as well as an accompaniment to hearings in the pre-and main proceedings, and legal assistance comprising of legal advice and representation by a lawyer. The paragraph also defines that the Federal Minister of Justice is authorised to contract vetted specialised agencies with the provision of court assistance.
In 2008, § 49a has been replaced by the current § 66 (2) Criminal Procedure Act. The legal basis for the psychosocial court assistance in the civil procedure was introduced as § 73b in the Civil Procedure Act (Zivilprozessordnung, ZPO) by the Second Act on Protection Against Violence, which entered into force on 1 June 2009.
Victims of violence are entitled to apply for psychosocial and legal assistance in court during criminal proceedings, free of charge. Victims of sexual violence under the age of 14 have to be granted psychosocial court assistance. Psychosocial court assistance in civil proceedings can be granted upon application to victims who have already been granted court assistance in the criminal procedure if the civil proceeding is factually related to the criminal proceedings (e.g., divorce, custody…). In civil proceedings, there is no standalone right to legal court assistance to support victims of violence.
Whereas these measures apply to all victims of violent crime, they benefit in particular women and children survivors of gender-based violence, including sexual violence and abuse, as court proceedings in such cases of sexual violence and abuse and intimate partner violence are particularly challenging.
The law has been implemented since 2006 (and extended in 2009) across the country. As the knowledge of the availability of this measure has increased, to accommodate growing demand, the number of institutions providing court assistance has increased over the years. Specialised victim support organisations are contracted by the Ministry to provide assistance, and they hold the autonomy to assess whether a victim requires assistance. They receive annual contracts and commit to apply agreed quality standards and to report annually.
The Ministry of Justice provides funding for court assistance, at a level which is generally deemed appropriate by victim support organisations. The budget has increased since the introduction of the law, from € 2 million in 2006, € 4.5 million in 2011, to € 5.5 million in 2014 [source: Managementzentrum Opferhilfe, MZ.O]. However, it was noted by some organisations providing court assistance that the cap on the amount that can be granted for psychosocial court assistance in civil court procedures should be removed.
At the regional (Bundesland) level, annual round tables which are organised by the regional courts convene all involved stakeholders and serve as a means of monitoring and evaluating the implementation of court assistance. to support victims of violence. Since 2011, consultation of all stakeholders is organised through the Managementzentrum Opferhilfe (MZ.O). It is mandated by the Ministry of Justice and is the central coordinating body and hub for all administrations, NGOs and individuals working in victim support. The MZ.O focuses on the administration and evaluation of the annual round tables together with the court presidents, the organisation of trainings and the further development of professional standards. It also reviews annual reports by the organisations that are contracted by the Ministry of Justice to provide court assistance and develops and maintains information material about court assistance in various languages as well as the Ministry’s respective webpage. The Ministry of Justice reports on the amounts spent on court assistance (a breakdown is provided by gender, by children and adults and by type of assistance, i.e. psychosocial and legal).
Support for victims of violence in court was evaluated externally in 2007. Since then, there has been no further formal external evaluation. With implementation of the Directive 2012/29/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2012 establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, pending Council Framework Decision [2001/220/JHA, which has to be transposed into national law by 16 November 2015. Another evaluation will likely not take place until after this new framework has been in place for 2 or 3 years.
Feedback has indicated that psychosocial court assistance is an important and necessary support for victims to feel empowered and confident in the context of court proceedings. Equally, law enforcement officers and the judiciary acknowledge the benefit of court assistance for survivors of sexual and gender based violence. The majority of beneficiaries of court assistance are adult women (in 2013, the total number of beneficiaries was 6866, of which 5666 were female, incl. 1118 under 18) [sources: correspondence by the Ministry of Justice in April and May 2014]. The total number of beneficiaries has more than doubled since 2008, indicating both the high demand and the high acceptance of this measure. Women’s shelters, which offer psychosocial court assistance, report that, since the introduction of court assistance, there has been a significant increase in willingness among their clients to report to the police and make a statement in court.
According to different stakeholders, one of the key benefits of this measure is that it has led to a closer dialogue, greater trust and better understanding between victim support organisations and the legal professions/judiciary. It is embedded in a strong network between all involved actors and institutions which are committed to working together to improve access to justice for women and girls survivors of violence.
Psychosocial and legal court assistance is transferable to all countries which have legislation where sexual and other forms of gender-based violence is considered a crime and can be prosecuted. It empowers women and girls survivors of violence enter court proceedings with greater confidence (for example as victim-witness or joint plaintiff, depending on legal provisions in this regard) and helps prevent secondary victimisation or re-traumatisation.
Precondition for implementation is the political will of the Government (and the Ministry of Justice in particular), including the commitment to ensure sustainable budgetary allocations, and the presence of a network of adequate specialised victim support services that could provide and monitor the court assistance.
Elsewhere, the EU Directive establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, which Member States must comply with by 16 November 2015, provides scope for the introduction of psychosocial court assistance (cf. Article 8(1) and Article 9). As an example of transposition to the national level, the German Justice Ministry’s proposal for the 3rd reform of the victims’ rights law envisages the introduction of the legal right to psychosocial court assistance for children and youth victims of (sexual) violence.
Directive 2012/29/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2012 establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, and replacing Council Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA.
European Council Framework Decision of 15 March 2001 on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings (2001/220/JHA).
Information on Court Assistance (incl. on the legal basis and on modalities of implementation) on the website of the Austrian Ministry of Justice.
Bundesgesetzblatt für die Republik Österreich Nr 759/1996: (Bundesgesetz zum Schutz vor Gewalt in der Familie – GeSchG (NR: GP XX RV 252 AB 407 S. 47. BR: 5300 AB 5311 S. 619.).
Bundesgesetz, mit dem die Exekutionsordnung, die Zivilprozessordnung, das Außerstreitgesetz, das Gerichtliche Einbringungsgesetz 1962, das Strafgesetzbuch, die Strafprozessordnung 1975, das Strafvollzugsgesetz, das Tilgungsgesetz 1972, das Staatsanwaltschaftsgesetz, das Verbrechensopfergesetz, das Strafregistergesetz und das Sicherheitspolizeigesetz geändert werden (Zweites Gewaltschutzgesetz – 2. GeSchG).
Bundesgesetzblatt für die Republik Österreich Nr 55/1999 (55. Bundesgesetz, mit dem Bestimmungen über den Rücktritt von der Verfolgung nach Zahlung eines Geldbetrages, nach Erbringung gemeinnütziger Leistungen, nach einer Probezeit und nach außergerichtlichem Tatausgleich (Diversion) in die Strafprozeßordnung eingefügt sowie das Jugendgerichtsgesetz, das Finanzstrafgesetz, das Strafvollzugsgesetz und das Bewährungshilfegesetz geändert werden (Strafprozeßnovelle 1999).
Bundesgesetzblatt für die Republik Österreich Nr 119/2005 (119. Bundesgesetz, mit dem die Strafprozessordnung 1975, das Staatsanwaltschaftsgesetz und das Tilgungsgesetz geändert werden).
Bundesministerium der Justiz und für Verbraucherschutz, “Neuregelungen zur psychosozialen Prozessbegleitung: Meilenstein für den Opferschutz im Strafverfahren”, 11.09.2014.
Winner of the Silver Future Policy Award 2014
In partnership with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, Austria's changes to the Criminal and Civil Procedure Act to introduce a legally enshrined right to psychosocial and legal court assistance were recognised with the World Future Council's Silver Future Policy Award 2014 on the topic of ending violence against women and girls!