Accessing support services from the courts and other systems can be difficult for survivors to do on their own without the help of a qualified advocate or an attorney. Survivors seeking legal assistance, legal representation, and general support through the legal process have a variety of options. First, survivors can retain an attorney experienced in domestic violence and family law matters. (See Tools for Accessing State Legal Resources for more information on finding an attorney). Retaining an attorney can be a costly process, but there are organizations and individuals who provide legal representation and advocacy at no or low cost for those who may qualify based on limited income. There are also organizations across the country where attorneys volunteer their time and take on cases at no charge.
Advocates without a legal background also help and support domestic violence survivors with legal advocacy. For example, advocates can accompany survivors of domestic violence to court in a number of jurisdictions. There are also many ways for advocates to assist attorneys who are representing survivors in family law matters and domestic violence cases, or survivors who are navigating the court system alone. Advocates may provide support to survivors throughout the civil legal process, which can be lengthy and emotionally draining. Many batterers attempt to continue to control their victims through the use of legal proceedings. For instance, batterers may file repeated motions to modify custody or visitation orders, petition for protection orders against victims, or harass children during court-ordered visits to gain information about survivors. Advocates can and do help survivors deal with the emotional effects of these behaviors, as well as help survivors safety plan as necessary. Also, advocates can and do help survivors gather documentation needed in court, such as police reports, medical records, and prior court orders, for example (Legal Resource Center on Violence Against Women).
Unfortunately, not all attorneys who represent survivors in custody and related cases are familiar with domestic violence, including its effects on survivors and their children and its impact on individual court cases. Experienced advocates can educate attorneys about these issues and help them to find technical assistance providers and other resources with information that can improve their representation of survivors (Legal Resource Center on Violence Against Women).
The resources below include questions and answers regarding how and when to select an attorney, descriptions of the role of non-attorney advocates, information on avoiding the unauthorized practice of law, information on when communication between a survivor and advocate is confidential, and information on representing and advocating for specific populations of survivors, including those in the military and those experiencing trauma and other mental health challenges.
Legal Resource Center on Violence Against Women
The mission of the Legal Resource Center on Violence Against Women (LRC) is to improve legal representation for domestic violence survivors. Specifically, the LRC works to obtain legal representation for domestic violence survivors in interstate custody cases and to provide technical assistance to domestic violence victim advocates and attorneys in such cases. The LRC is working to increase and to improve the legal representation available to survivors as follows:
- By developing a network of highly qualified attorneys who will represent survivors
- By offering training, support, and internet-based resources to practitioners
- By encouraging the next generation of attorneys to take these cases through developing curricular materials for law schools
- By working with law firms and the private bar to increase the availability of free or low cost representation for survivors around the country
Victims Assistance and Sexual Assault Program, Montgomery County, MD
In Montgomery County, Maryland, the Victims Assistance and Sexual Assault Program (VASAP), a project of the state Department of Health and Human Services, accepts volunteers to work on domestic violence-related court cases, as well as in outreach efforts and activities. As a VASAP volunteer, an individual can “conduct outreach to county hospitals and police stations for sexual assault/rape victims, accompany and support victims during the court process, and use interpretive skills.” Specifically, court companion volunteers assist crime victims seeking peace and protective orders by helping them complete required paperwork, and then accompany them to the subsequent court proceedings. Please contact your state domestic violence coalition to learn about similar opportunities in your area.