Your Voice

Fill the 'Justice Gap': Victims of domestic violence need your pro bono legal help

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Bronwyn Blake

Bronwyn Blake.

I’ll never forget sitting in professor Sarah Buel’s Domestic Violence and the Law class at the University of Texas School of Law, as she shared her iconic article: Fifty Obstacles to Leaving, a.k.a., Why Abuse Victims Stay.

From her perspective as a survivor, she pulled back the curtain on something too many people misunderstand: The most dangerous time for survivors of interpersonal violence is when they decide to leave or seek help. I knew from that point on that I wanted to dedicate myself to better understanding this issue and serving survivors.

Now, after 18 years of practicing survivor law, I’ve seen firsthand what advocates like Buel have long known. I’ve come to understand through my work at the Texas Advocacy Project that the majority of family violence-related homicides occur during or directly after separation.

In fact, women in abusive relationships are 3.6 times more likely to be killed in the period immediately after separation than during any other time in the relationship, according to a 2006 study titled “War and Public Health—and the rate of nonlethal violence increases as well.

I’ve personally seen these scenarios play out, and I’ve also witnessed how access to legal services during this critical time can save lives. Civil protective orders prevent further violence for many victims. A 2002 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found victims with protective orders were 80% less likely to be re-victimized. The impact of dedicated attorneys cannot be overstated, as a survivor is far more likely to acquire a protective order with the assistance of an attorney than without.

Sadly, the need for legal services far outpaces the supply. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht states, “legal aid is available to only a fraction of those who need it: by some estimates, no more than half, by others, less than one-fifth.”

The phrase “with liberty and justice for all” means that justice should be accessible to everyone; however, with limited exceptions, there is no right to civil matters. Most low-income Americans are forced to go it alone. When your life maybe be on the line, I believe you deserve the support of an attorney.

I’m now honored to teach the same Domestic Violence and the Law class at UT Law that shaped my own career trajectory. I share with my students my belief that attorneys have an obligation to ensure survivors don’t fall into the “justice gap.”

Below, I’m providing my own list (inspired by Buel), which shows the myriad ways Texas Advocacy Project attorneys assist survivors on our legal hotline; these tips can be adapted for your own work:

25 standards of practice for advising survivors of intimate partner violence:

  1. Maintain client privacy by asking: Is it safe to talk? Is it safe to leave a voicemail? Does the abuser know your address?

  2. Explain that conversations are confidential and protected by attorney-client privilege, while explaining the limits on confidentiality.

  3. Practice active and reflective listening. Allow survivors to speak uninterrupted first, so they can feel heard and believed.

  4. Respond in a trauma-informed way. Empathetic, but modulated responses build trust and rapport, so survivors feel safe discussing difficult topics with candor.

  5. Validate that abuse is not OK, and they deserve to be treated with respect. Provide information about the dynamics of interpersonal violence and correct misconceptions, fears and lies the client may have been told.

  6. Survey the technological landscape by exploring whether the client is comfortable on the phone or if they prefer video conference, and learning whether they have access to the internet to reference links, e-file or attend a virtual hearing.

  7. Conduct an abbreviated lethality assessment and create a safety plan.

  8. Ask what justice means to them. Empower them to determine their objectives and goals.

  9. Evaluate for access to justice issues (such as language access or indigency) and identify possible solutions. Screen for other factors that may affect the client’s options: Are they a minor, immigrant or victim of racial injustice? Provide accommodations for those with needs such as visual or hearing impairments.

  10. Issue spot based on client’s goals and the case—but also look at related issues, such as housing, education and employment law, as well as intersecting systems such as criminal justice and child welfare systems.

  11. Assess whether children are involved and identify their needs and the client’s needs regarding them.

  12. If a case is ongoing, assess the current procedural posture: What is the status quo? Do they have a protective order or child welfare order? Review and interpret legal documents and explain implications, effects and consequences of oral and written agreements.

  13. Advise client on what to start and stop doing, as well as how to gather and preserve evidence.

  14. Advise on economic abuse, coerced debt and economic justice. Discuss spousal support and child support, if applicable.

  15. Assess for interstate issues and connect with attorneys in other states as needed (the ABA hosts listserves for this!). Discuss other forums, such as military court, tribal court, and administrative processes, if applicable.

  16. Educate clients on the relevant laws in plain language (not “legalese”) and explain processes of the legal system. Advise on local rules, local forums, and the treatment of pro se litigants in the client’s area.

  17. Explain Crime Victims’ Rights and advise clients how to assert them.

  1. Discuss timing, deadlines and statutes of limitations. Ask about the client’s own deadlines (e.g., are they pregnant or planning to marry?).

  2. Explain the services available and any limitations. Advise clients of available remedies—both inside and outside court—and explain the pros and cons of each. Objectively evaluate cases to help clients understand the strengths and weaknesses and have realistic expectations of the possible outcomes. Together, lay out a step-by-step plan and make sure client knows the next step to take.

  3. Assess client for capacity: ability to understand and act on advice.

  4. Advise on how to find, interview and hire an outside attorney, if needed.

  5. Determine whether additional information and/or legal research is needed before you can fully advise and arrange for necessary follow-up.

  6. Refer to community resources or social workers for higher-level needs, if applicable. Social workers help with mental health and substance abuse issues, food and housing insecurity, and more, but you can also call 211 for local referrals to address these needs.

  7. Log everything to enable future assistance. Help client take notes or offer to send the client information in writing. Encourage clients to call back for additional help.

  8. Connect client with a comprehensive support system, such as your local interpersonal violence shelter. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a database of domestic violence resources in your area.

Every time an attorney helps a victim of interpersonal violence, they have the opportunity to save lives, prevent serious injury, prevent additional medical expenses and alleviate already clogged courts and overworked law enforcement agencies.

We need more attorneys to join the cause. If you are inspired to get involved, please reach out to organizations like the Texas Advocacy Project in your area and offer your pro bono services.

Bronwyn Blake is the chief legal officer at the Texas Advocacy Project, providing free legal services to victims of family violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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