November 4, 2019
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Tags: Domestic Violence
Organizations mentioned/involved: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)
Domestic violence is a complex issue and takes a network of programs to prevent it and protect victims. One of the single most important factors in determining whether a survivor escapes domestic abuse is access to civil legal services. Studies show that representation by a lawyer means more protection for victims and their children, including through legal needs such as protection orders, divorce, child custody and child support.
Despite the benefits of access to civil legal aid, victims of domestic violence are not entitled to court-appointed lawyers for civil cases. Abusers facing criminal charges, however, are entitled to these services while victims are left to navigate the complex court systems on their own. Many victims cannot afford to hire an attorney to help them because their abusers often control their finances, and the lack of access to court-appointed attorneys often perpetuates the cycle of abuse and ensures that victims are one step further from breaking free. Further, many abusers misuse the court system to maintain power and control over their former or current partners.
As an attorney, I have seen firsthand the difference civil legal aid can make for someone trying to escape domestic violence. I was fortunate enough to meet Lynn (name changed for privacy) when she first realized she needed legal help. She was desperate and afraid. Even though she was only 32, she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and was struggling to cope with the treatments. At the same time, her home life was deteriorating as her husband became increasingly abusive and violent. Lynn couldn’t risk losing the health insurance she got through her husband, but she knew she couldn’t stay in her marriage any longer.