One Simple Idea That Could Reduce Domestic Violence

Many victims can't afford lawyers. What if we gave them one for free?

07/21/2015 08:07 am ET | Updated Jan 18, 2016
Jake Reeves/The Huffington Post

A report released Tuesday is proposing a simple way to reduce domestic violence: Give victims free lawyers. 

Lawyers are expensive, and women who need them often can't afford them. Without legal counsel, it can be harder for women to get protective orders, leave their abusive partners and escape the cycle of violence. And women stuck in violent relationships tend to miss work because of injury or rack up hospital bills they can never pay off, according to the report by The Institute for Policy Integrity, a nonpartisan think tank.

With one in four women in the U.S. estimated to become victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, this dynamic has major economic repercussions. As the report notes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that domestic violence costs the U.S. at least $9.05 billion each year.

Providing free or subsidized legal representation to victims, the report concludes, may reduce domestic violence and would be cost-effective as it would likely result in lower associated health care and legal costs.

“Not only are there rights- and moral-based reasons for support for domestic violence survivors, there are many economic reasons too,” said Denise Grab, senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity and co-author of the report. “When we invest in education or infrastructure, no one sees a problem because the benefits of doing so clearly justify the cost. This may be the case for when we invest in services to support domestic violence survivors as well."

The report finds that lawyers can play a pivotal role in reducing domestic violence. A domestic violence victim is more likely to receive a protective order if she has a lawyer when she applies. In one study cited in the report, 83 percent of victims represented by an attorney successfully obtained a protective order, while only 32 percent of victims without an attorney were able to get one.

And with a protective order, the victim is less likely to experience violence. While protective orders are frequently violated (estimates hover around 40 percent of the time), research suggests they can be effective at reducing the rate and severity of violence and helping women feel safer.

"There’s evidence that the survivors themselves find these protective orders tremendously important for increasing their own ability to stand up against the abuser, to communicate that the actions of the abuser are wrong, and to begin to get the support and tools that they need to get out of the relationship," Grab said.

In addition to helping with a protective order, a free or subsidized lawyer can also provide critical help with related legal issues that may hinder women from leaving abusive relationships, such as child custody, immigration status and housing.

Victims are truly desperate for these services, and it's heartbreaking to say that they are unavailable.

Research shows that domestic violence victims do indeed lack adequate access to affordable legal services. Each year, the National Network to End Domestic Violence conducts a one-day survey of domestic violence programs nationwide to calculate how many victims are asking for help and what services they are seeking.

On the day of the survey in 2014, just over half of the programs were able to have an advocate accompany a domestic violence survivor to court, but only 11 percent reported being able to offer legal representation. Funding cuts have forced some programs to cut these important services, and between 2013 and 2014, 74 programs reduced or eliminated their legal advocacy offerings, while 66 reduced or entirely cut their legal representation services.

Unsurprisingly, the programs' second-most common request for help that they were unable to provide was legal representation. (The first was for housing.)

"Victims are truly desperate for these services, and it is heartbreaking to say that they are unavailable, but sadly that is most often the case,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said in response to Tuesday's report. "From obtaining a simple restraining order to preventing a violent abuser from obtaining custody, the availability of a knowledgeable and affordable attorney can literally mean the difference between survival and disaster."

The report recommends that states and municipalities consider giving domestic violence victims free or reduced-cost counsel for protective order proceedings and other related legal matters.

“We’re hoping that policymakers who view this report may consider putting more resources into legal aid for domestic violence survivors, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it will likely pay off,” said Grab.

Original illustration by Jake Reeves.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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