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An Online Resource Library on Gender-Based Violence.

Navigating the Civil Legal System: Resources for Survivors of Domestic Violence, Their Advocates, and Legal Professionals

December 01, 2015

Survivors of domestic violence can face a number of legal issues that either directly stem from, or are affected by, the actions of those who use abuse and violence. These issues can include obtaining protection orders against an abuser; filing for divorce; seeking custody of and/or visitation with minor children; and filing for child support. This collection of resources is divided, in part, by these topics and is specifically focused on those legal issues most commonly arising in family court.

Please note that the focus of this resource collection is civil legal issues rather than criminal legal matters.* The collection includes both national and state legal resources for advocates and legal professionals working with survivors of domestic violence, as well as survivors who either may be representing themselves in protection order and family law proceedings or who are seeking legal referrals. In addition, this collection includes a number of directories to assist in locating legal services for survivors in specific states, including legal aid organizations, paid attorneys, and volunteer attorneys, as well as information on how state laws and court procedures differ.

While many survivors of domestic violence choose to pursue legal remedies to address abuse and related issues, and there are often positive benefits associated with obtaining legal help, there are many survivors who wish to avoid the legal system for a number of reasons and instead pursue other avenues of support. Listed below are just a few of the considerations that might be important to individual survivors:

  • Legal representation is expensive, and there are often associated and sometimes unanticipated costs.
  • Though evidence suggests economic benefits to society associated with providing legal services to domestic violence survivors, and that the benefits to be gained by subsidizing more legal services can often justify their costs, low- or no-cost legal representation is not always guaranteed (Supporting Survivors: The Economic Benefits of Providing Civil Legal Assistance to Survivors of Domestic Violence, 2015).
  • Pursuing legal remedies requires a great deal of time for case preparation, meetings with attorneys, and court hearings, thereby adding another layer of challenges to a survivor’s life.
  • It can prove intimidating, and even dangerous, to bring a legal action against or face an abuser in court.
  • Life-changing decisions such as custody of minor children are often ultimately left to the determination of a judge; the potential exists for a decision to be made that might not be ideal, or even favorable, to the survivor or her children.
  • Significantly, many survivors may face discrimination from the legal system itself, particularly survivors of color, LGBT survivors, survivors with disabilities, and survivors with limited English proficiency.
  • Because of laws regarding tribal and state jurisdiction, Native survivors may not even be able to access appropriate and necessary legal remedies.

Such barriers and discrimination may substantially, and understandably, dissuade survivors from engaging with the civil legal system.

Survivors are strongly encouraged to seek advice and support from a domestic violence advocate or other trusted source before pursuing legal action against an abusive partner. Also, in the event a survivor decides not to pursue legal action, there are a number of alternative types of support available to her/him. For more information on the specific types of support that exist for survivors, please contact your state domestic violence coalition.
Please note that there are a number of legal issues that can and often do intersect with domestic violence, including housing, economics and finance, immigration, and criminal legal issues. This collection does not cover those topics. While some of the material included here addresses immigration status as it relates to other legal issues in immigrant survivors’ lives, information on representing survivors in immigration proceedings is outside of the scope of this resource collection. For more information on the myriad issues affecting immigrant survivors of domestic violence, please access the VAWnet Special Collection, Immigrant Women and Domestic Violence.

Please note that the resources found below are for informational purposes only and do not contain legal advice.

* For more information on the intersection of criminal legal matters and domestic violence, please visit the Battered Women’s Justice Project.