Survivors attempting to escape an abusive relationship are often faced with an overwhelming number of legal issues. Foremost, they may need to secure a protection order, a legal document that bars abusers from continuing physical violence and contacting a victim. Protection orders can also include economic provisions such as granting the victim possession of a home or vehicle or requiring the offender to pay for rent, utilities, medical expenses or damaged property. In addition, survivors may need to resolve legal issues including child custody, child support, spousal support, divorce, immigration and housing to keep themselves and their children safe from harm and economically secure. Unfortunately, many survivors find themselves without representation or the resources they need to navigate a complex legal system. A new report from the Center of Public Integrity explains how increasing the amount of free or subsidized legal services available to survivors would not only increase access to legal protections and help keep survivors safe from further abuse, but would also lower the overall rates of domestic violence and its substantial cost to society.
Many survivors have limited options when trying to secure legal protections from abusers. Since women in the lowest income households are seven times more likely to experience abuse than women in the highest income households, costly private attorneys are inaccessible for many survivors. They may choose to represent themselves in court as a pro se litigant, but the level of knowledge, financial resources and time needed for fees, court filings and hearings can seem insurmountable for an inexperienced litigant. Family court judges have reported that it is common for pro se litigants to fail to receive the justice they deserve due to confusion surrounding court processes and their mishandling of cases. This is particularly problematic in domestic violence cases, where judges may perceive a victims inability to remember details, delays in reporting and choices not to leave an abusive partner as a lack of credibility rather than a typical response to a traumatic situation. This lack of legal expertise can lead to a pronounced difference in the outcome of a case: one study found that litigants represented by an attorney received a protection order in 83% of cases, as opposed to 32% of unrepresented litigants.
Currently, there are some free and low-cost legal services available to survivors, but they do not come close to meeting the vast demand for services. Legal aid attorneys are federally funded to provide free services in civil cases for anyone making under 125% of the poverty line. However, they turn away over 1 million clients per year due to limited capacity, leaving eight out of ten eligible people without any form of legal representation. Domestic violence service providers attempt to meet some of the demand, but a recent census of providers found that only 11% were able to offer their clients legal representation.
The need for increased free or subsidized representation for domestic violence survivors is clear. As the report describes, the cost of providing legal assistance to survivors is outweighed by its benefits. Domestic violence accounts for more than $9 billion per year in health care expenses, lost productivity, lost lifetime earnings, criminal justice involvement and social service usage. Expanding legal assistance can significantly lower rates of domestic violence by creating pathways out of abusive relationships for more survivors, which results in lower economic costs. While there is still a need for further research around how to best expand and deliver these services, free or subsidized legal assistance is a promising approach to provide critical support for survivors during one of the most challenging periods of their life while benefiting society as a whole.