A report released last week and discussed in a recent compelling Huffington Post article entitled, “One Simple Idea that Could Reduce Domestic Violence,” highlights the importance of free legal representation for DV survivors. Prepared by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law, the report found that survivors of domestic violence who have legal representation when they seek protection orders against their abusers are significantly more likely to get the protection orders than unrepresented survivors. Notably, the report recommends that state and municipalities provide free or low cost legal services to survivors of domestic violence.
Protection orders play a vital role in helping survivors rebuild their lives and escape the cycle of violence, and are often critical to helping survivors leave their abusers. In addition, access to free legal services can help address some of the less obvious challenges that survivors face as a result of domestic violence. Survivors who fear job loss, custody battles, and immigration issues are less likely to leave violent relationships.
As a domestic violence attorney at Legal Aid, I see the impact of legal representation in the litigation of Civil Protection Order (CPO) cases. Survivors lucky enough to have good legal representation in CPO cases have the advantage of an emotionally removed legal advocate who can present the facts and understand the law. In addition, lawyers can anticipate complex legal issues—like jurisdictional questions or the implications of a domestic violence case on a survivor’s housing, benefits, or custody of their children—that survivors may not recognize or know how to handle on their own. For example, a survivor who has gotten a CPO may still lose her job as a result of domestic violence, as the domestic violence may have affected her attendance and work performance. Legal representation could be crucial to that survivor securing the unemployment benefits to which she is entitled.
Unfortunately, legal representation can be quite expensive and survivors who are already facing financial strain as a result of the domestic violence in their lives may not be able to afford the additional expense. The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia provides free legal services to survivors of domestic violence who qualify for our services. Legal Aid attorneys help survivors of domestic violence get Civil Protection Orders against their abusers, fight for custody of their children and obtain child support. In addition to those services, Legal Aid also assists survivors with related legal issues such as acquiring unemployment benefits, working through issues related to consumer protection, ensuring that clients can access public benefits as well as safe, stable housing for themselves and their children.
At Legal Aid, we see the impact of domestic violence in real life and understand that the availability of free legal services is essential to helping survivors who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer move forward with their lives. Access to high-quality, free legal services is a crucial part of serving victims and their families as they rebuild their lives. As the author of the article suggested, I hope that states will heed the call to provide increased funding for legal services for survivors of domestic violence.