HuffPost Asks if D.C. Public Interest Lawyers Could Prevent Domestic Tragedies

by Kristen Pavón

Huffington Post’s Matthew Fraidin suggests that part of the D.C. Council’s $89 million surplus go to funding more legal aid.

With Alecia Wheeler’s story as a tragic reminder, Fraidin recognized the tremendous “bang legal services lawyers provide for every buck” and how public interest lawyers could help save lives.

In domestic violence cases, the litigants’ testimony often is the primary source of information for the judge. Without a lawyer asking questions sequentially and with the goal of eliciting answers which amount to a legally-cognizable complaint, a story may emerge incompletely and disjointedly. Facts which may be of great importance to the complainant may be of limited significance under the law, or the judge may misperceive their true meaning. . . .

And many litigants are not aware of the importance of marshaling additional corroborating evidence, such as witness testimony, telephone records, police reports, hospital records, and 911 telephone recordings. For a woman fleeing or hiding from a batterer, especially if she is trying to care for children at the same time, building an air-tight case on her own is simply unrealistic.

That is where a lawyer comes in. The District of Columbia is fortunate to have a strong community of committed anti-domestic violence advocates and legal services lawyers. We get that stellar service on the cheap: salaries for legal services lawyers start at about $40,000. And those resources are complemented by top-flight student law clinics, as well as pro bono lawyers affiliated with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program.

But nearly 4,500 people, mostly women, seek stay-away orders each year in the District of Columbia. Using the Access to Justice Commission’s estimate that 98% of litigants are unrepresented, that is too many chances for even the most careful judges to get it wrong.

As Council members weigh the many funding priorities competing for a piece of the $89 million pie, they should recognize the bang legal services lawyers provide for every buck. Studies show that legal aid more than pays for itself. Even more to the point, domestic violence lawyers make women safer by using legal avenues, such as child support actions, that reduce a victim’s financial dependence on a batterer and eliminate one obstacle to ending a dangerous relationship.

Read the rest of the article here.

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