Report From Governmental Affairs

ABA-backed legislation will help domestic violence survivors get pro bono legal help

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The ABA is applauding the enactment this past fall of legislation to help survivors of domestic violence gain access to pro bono legal services.

The Pro bono Work to Empower and Represent Act of 2018 moved through Congress with strong bipartisan support. The new law requires the chief judge from each judicial district to host at least one public event annually for the next four years to promote free legal services to empower survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Every two years during the next four years, the chief judges must host events in areas with high populations of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The new law also requires each chief judge to submit a report on each event to the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, who will provide an annual compilation and summary of the reports to Congress.

The idea for the POWER Act grew out of pro bono summits established in Alaska in 2010 by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, when he was the state’s attorney general. Sullivan introduced the legislation with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., also a former state attorney general. Reps. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., and Don Young, R-Alaska, sponsored a companion bill in the House. While the original version of the legislation called on the U.S. attorney in each judicial district to host the pro bono events, the final version included an amendment shifting that role to the chief judge.

Citing “horrific” statistics, Sullivan emphasized that “we must get serious about reducing the rate of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska and across the country.” He said Department of Justice research shows that about 25 percent of American women will be victims of domestic assault in their lifetimes, and three women on average are killed by a current or former partner each day in the United States.

He also explained that research has shown that “when abused victims are represented by an attorney, their ability to break out of the cycle of violence increases dramatically.” One study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that 83 percent of victims represented by an attorney were able to obtain a protective order, compared to just 32 percent of victims without an attorney.

The POWER Act cites the comment on Model Rule 6.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, stating “every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, has a responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, and personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer.”

In a statement commending the enactment of the POWER Act, ABA President Bob Carlson said: “An underlying goal of this law is to let victims know that legal assistance is available to them and empower them to move forward with their lives.”

Carlson emphasized the ABA “has long promoted access to justice for victims of domestic and sexual violence and urges every lawyer to provide legal services to those who have a limited ability to pay.” Policies adopted by the ABA’s House of Delegates in 2006 urge all lawyers to engage in community service activities—including delivering pro bono legal services—and support the development of programs by the courts in collaboration with bar associations to encourage, facilitate and recognize pro bono representation of indigent parties in civil cases.

Carlson issued a call to action for the legal profession and state and local bar associations to work with the chief judges in their districts to implement the new law.

Encouraged by the success of pro bono assistance efforts in Alaska and other states, the sponsors hope that the POWER Act, as a tool at the federal level, will create “an army of lawyers to defend victims and survivors of abuse.”


This report is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government. Rhonda McMillion is editor of ABA Washington Letter, a Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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