October 01, 2016

Bills focus on pro bono assistance to domestic violence victims

Bipartisan legislation pending in Congress seeks to increase access to pro bono legal services for victims of domestic violence.

S. 2280, which unanimously passed the Senate in November 2015, and H.R.  6149, introduced in the House Sept. 22 just ahead of Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, would require the U.S. Attorney in each judicial district across the country to hold at least one public event per year promoting pro bono services “as a way to empower victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and engage citizens in assisting those survivors.” The bills also would require at least one public event every three years that focuses on increasing pro bono services for Indian or Alaska Native victims in judicial districts that contain an Indian tribe or tribal organization.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault are scourges that we must work to eliminate,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Ark.), who sponsored the Senate bill with original cosponsors Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “Too often victims of domestic violence are unable to seek permanent refuge because they lack the protective legal services to keep them safe from their abusers − but our bill aims to change this,” Heitkamp said. “We can make sure domestic violence victims – especially those living in Indian Country − can access affordable legal services that can help them escape the often cyclical abuse they experience.”

In the House, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy (D-Mass.) – who introduced H.R. 6149 with original cosponsors Don Young (R-Ark.), Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) – said the legislation, the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent Act (POWER Act), “will help restore the promise of equal protection for the millions of domestic violence victims across the country.”

The Justice Department estimates that one in four women experience domestic violence during their lifetime, and a recent census conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that over the course of one day in September 2014, more than 10,000 requests for services, including legal representation, were not met. Research also shows that the provision of legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking reduces the probability of such violence or behavior recurring in the future and can help survivors move forward.

The ABA supports the expansion of pro bono legal services by all lawyers as a critical priority, and the legislation includes the following language from the commentary of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct: “…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 a lawyer.”

No further action has been scheduled for the bill, but there is a possibility that the legislation may come up during the lame duck session following the Nov. 8 general election.

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