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Suspected criminals have access to free attorneys, so why don’t survivors of domestic violence? Actually, they do. You just have to know where to look and what to look for.
While courts in civil cases don’t appoint attorneys, people who can’t afford their own legal counsel do have options, says Wendy Murphy, JD, an attorney and professor of sexual violence law at New England Law Boston. “Some lawyers do free work a portion of the time, and then there are nonprofit organizations that offer free legal services.”
There may be lay legal advocates in your community who have been trained in domestic violence cases and who provide services free for victims. Contact your local domestic violence nonprofit and ask if they can help connect you.
Both options have benefits and drawbacks. It’s typically easier to find assistance through a nonprofit organization. Domestic violence shelters and advocacy groups, as well as websites such as lawhelp.org, can assist low- and moderate-income individuals in finding free or affordable legal assistance. But legal assistance programs are often funded by grants or federal or state money and may come with restrictions such as what kind of cases lawyers can take and what kind of actions they can take during cases.
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“You may get a free lawyer, but because of how they’re funded, they may be forbidden to file appeals or fight court orders,” Murphy says. “These organizations will tell victims there’s nothing they can do because an appeal is not possible. I’ve seen lots of cases where victims are told incorrectly that appeal is not possible.”
Hiring an attorney who is willing to handle your case pro bono (without charge) may be preferable to going through an assistance program, but they’re not as easy to come by.
“It’s not a lack of commitment on the attorney’s part,” Murphy says. “It’s that [family law] is all-encompassing and cases never really end. Asking a lawyer to do some free work is reasonable and desperately needed. But asking a lawyer to get involved in a case that lasts 20 years is unreasonable.”
Make Sure They Fit This One Requirement
No matter which route you choose, it’s imperative to consider the attorney’s experience. When asked how important it is to hire a lawyer who has experience in domestic violence casework, Murphy says, “It’s critical. But having said that, a lawyer with commitment and less experience in the business of domestic violence is probably a better choice than a lawyer with a lot of experience who’s not willing to fight and appeal.”
Murphy even suggested inquiring for help at a law school.
“The younger the students, the more likely they are to do the right thing because they haven’t been trained to do the wrong thing,” she says. “Reach out to recent graduates. They can take on your case for free or little money because they’re still learning. They’re far more likely to file an appeal partly because they’re looking for the experience.”
Thinking about going it alone? It’s generally not recommended, but if you decide to represent yourself in court, educate yourself on the laws pertaining to your case and familiarize yourself with the court process by sitting in on proceedings in the court that will be hearing your case. For more advice, read “Representing Yourself in Court.”
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