As the recent tragedy of Alecia Wheeler has shown in the District of Columbia, legal representation is incredibly important for survivors of domestic violence to be sure they receive the remedy they deserve; in most jurisdictions, a civil protection order. During domestic violence awareness month, we must keep in mind the significant hurdles that still exist even with all the progress made to assist those in need.
Once a survivor actually makes the difficult decision to take her batterer to court, the process begins. In D.C., a non-profit called Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment does intake for the majority of those who come in to court or to a hospital in Southeast D.C. to file for their orders. Their streamlined approach, with a police officer, Office of the Attorney General, and resources on site does its best to make intake simple.
From there, the survivor goes to the judge hearing Temporary Protection Orders that day or night. The judge reviews the petition, detailing the act alleged (in D.C., it must be a threat or actual commission of some crime by the batterer) and grants or denies the order. From there, the order must be given to the batterer personally for it to become enforceable. A full hearing for a year-long civil protection order is scheduled for 14 days later.
Once the time for the full hearing arrives, the survivor appears in front of the judge with the burden on her to show that the incident(s) in question more likely than not occurred. Judges are trained to be neutral factfinders, not to be weighed by emotional appeals but to levy the facts on each side and come to a conclusion. Survivors experiencing domestic violence are filled with strong emotions that can be hard to regulate, and a lawyer can cut through those emotions to isolate the most important facts for the judge. Survivors may turn to coping mechanisms like alcohol or drugs, or be experiencing trauma that leaves them unable to properly represent themselves in court, which leaves the judge wondering why an order should be issued at all. Lawyers allow the survivor to have the freedom to work through her emotions without concern of the judges’ reaction or interpretation of her behavior; lawyers are seen as more reliable.
Lawyers mitigate the effect of additional hurdles for survivors. Take survivors who have limited or no English proficiency; speaking through an interpreter to the judge is not an ideal situation. Even with training in the dynamics of domestic violence, an interpreter could distort facts or misrepresent key points; a lawyer’s representation of the facts can more clearly paint the picture of the situation. Lawyers can lessen client fears about what may happen in the courtroom to allow their clients to put the best case forward. Lawyers ensure compliance with court rules to get an order that can be fully enforceable if the time comes. Lawyers know who a survivor does or does not have to discuss her case with at the courthouse; Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents have been known to try to extract information from those obtaining civil protection orders across the country.
In short, lawyers can make each step of an incredibly difficult process easier for a survivor to navigate to ultimately increase her safety and hold her batterer accountable. If you are a lawyer and want to help, in D.C., Washington Empowered Against Violence and the DC Volunteer Lawyers’ Project train and provide attorneys to survivors for free. A quick Google search can lead to equivalent projects across the country Each step taken to increase representation for survivors in court takes us all closer to a world free from domestic violence.
The author is a Policy Attorney at the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence.