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If you’re contemplating leaving an abuser, you may be wondering, “Do I need a lawyer?” And the answer is, it depends. There are certain steps you can take to escape and protect yourself without having to hire an attorney. Others necessitate legal representation. Knowing when—and how—to find a lawyer can make life a little easier when leaving.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File for an Order of Protection?
No. You can petition the court for a protection order (also called a restraining order) without an attorney. The process varies slightly by jurisdiction but generally involves going to the courthouse, filling out paperwork and then providing a sworn testimony in front of a judge. Some jurisdictions allow you to begin the paperwork online or at home, so check your court’s website to save time. If you have questions or would like assistance with the process, you can ask to speak with a court/victim advocate or contact a local domestic abuse program.
When you go to file for the order, be sure to take with you identification, as well as any evidence you have to support your testimony (written notes about incidents, threatening text messages, pictures, etc.). Any information you can provide about the defendant’s (abuser’s) whereabouts, such as a home address or place of business, is helpful in getting the order served. However, do not put yourself in danger to get this information; often the police or a civil process server can find it.
If the defendant contests the protection order, you will likely need to return to court for a hearing at a specified date. Ideally, you would have representation in court. Since each jurisdiction has different rules as to what constitutes abuse, harassment and stalking, it can be helpful to have an attorney with experience in domestic violence representing you and helping to prove your case for why the protection order should stand. If you’re unable to hire a lawyer, read up on representing yourself in court.
Learn more about restraining orders in our guide.
Do I Need a Lawyer if I’m Pressing Charges?
No. If an abuser is arrested for committing a crime to which you are the victim, you will not need to hire a lawyer to press charges. Your case will be handled by a city or state prosecutor or district attorney, depending on the jurisdiction.
A note about “pressing charges”: If an abuser is arrested for a domestic violence crime (assault, threats, stalking, etc.) against someone who fits the definition of a domestic violence relationship (current or former intimate partner, family member, roommate, etc.) then you won’t get to decide if you want to press charges or not. The prosecutor will decide for you. This is because courts know that domestic violence survivors are fearful of abusers and are often threatened into not pressing charges. So the law has removed the victim’s discretion in such cases.
In other words, an abuser can be prosecuted, tried and sentenced without your participation. However, it’s much more likely for an abuser to be convicted of a domestic violence crime if you cooperate with prosecutors.
Do I Need a Lawyer if An Abuser is Trying to Get Custody of the Kids?
Family court is where representation by an attorney is crucial, particularly if your abusive partner has a lawyer. You’ll want to retain legal counsel when filing for divorce or custody of children, dividing assets, etc.
Keep in mind that many protective mothers walk into court not knowing custody courts are often not in their favor. Many survivors have told us they expected they would be able to explain to a judge what happened and the court would protect their children, when in reality, the opposite happened. This is why it’s even more important to find a lawyer with experience in reprenting survivors of domestic violence.
Linda Lopez, Esq., a member of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence says abusive partners can cry custodial interference if you abscond with shared children. While most courts would see that removing them from an unsafe environment was in their best interest, acknowledges Lopez, laws vary by state and each situation is looked at on a case-by-case basis.
That said, don’t let not having an attorney keep you from leaving.
To protect yourself, Lopez advises, “Reach out to a domestic violence organization or your local bar association and get legal advice given your specific facts, and ask what the best plan is for you. But, if you’re in imminent danger, say, at 8 o’clock at night, see if you can get into a shelter first, and consult with an attorney the next day.”
When it comes time to separate permanently from your abusive partner, a lawyer can help you secure the best outcome for yourself and your family’s future. Learn more about escaping domestic abuse with children.
Where Can I Get Legal Help?
Approach finding an attorney like you would any other professional. A personal recommendation from someone in a similar situation is best. Ask friends, family and neighbors for a referral. If you don’t know anyone who’s been in a similar situation or you don’t feel comfortable asking, check with an advocate at a local DV program. While they can’t recommend any individual attorney, they can point you toward resources to finding one who is experienced in cases involving domestic violence.
The ABA DV commission’s website has helpful links (look under “Resources”), including the American Bar Association Consumer’s Guide to Legal Help. After clicking your state, you can find a list of legal resources near you, such as your state’s laws and rights that pertain to domestic violence, a guide to your state’s court system, a lawyer referral page and a database to find out if the lawyer you’re hiring is licensed and in good standing with the courts.
For more on securing legal representation, check out this advice on finding the right attorney.
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How Much Should I Expect to Pay for a Lawyer?
It’s hard to say, as costs vary greatly depending on geographic location and case complexity. Most lawyers charge per hour, with costs ranging from less than $100 per hour upwards of $400 per hour or more. The average cost of an uncontested divorce in the U.S., according to legal site Nolo, is $4,100 whereas the average cost of a divorce that goes to trial for two or more contested issues is $23,300. That said, more than half of divorces that involve child-related disputes cost less than $10,000.
What If I Can’t Afford a Lawyer?
If cost is an issue, which it often is with domestic violence, don’t give up. There is free and discounted legal help available. Start by contacting your local DV shelter for help. An advocate may be able to point you in the direction of free and low-cost resources in your area. Advocacy groups, as well as websites such as lawhelp.org, can also assist low- and moderate-income individuals in finding free or affordable legal assistance. Another option is to inquire at a law school. New lawyers have less experience but are typically less expensive than seasoned attorneys and may even be willing to take your case at a discount or for free.
Looking for someone to speak with? Enter your location to find phone numbers for domestic violence experts in your area.
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