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September 26, 2018

ABA president applauds enactment of POWER Act to help domestic violence victims receive pro bono help

ABA President Robert M. Carlson applauded the signing Sept. 4 of the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent Act of 2018 (POWER Act), which will help victims of domestic violence gain access to pro bono legal services.

The legislation, P.L. 115-237 (S. 717), requires the chief judge in each judicial district to host at least one public event annually to promote free legal services to empower survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  Within the next four years, the chief judges must hold two of these 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.

“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 said in his statement. He emphasized that 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 limited ability to pay.”

P.L. 115-237 cites the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct commentary stating that “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.”

Carlson urged state and local bar associations across the county to work with the chief judges in their districts to facilitate annual implementation of the new law.

Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) sponsored the bipartisan legislation, noting that about 25 percent of women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. They highlighted research showing that the success rate for a survivor obtaining a protective order against an attacker increases by over 50 percent when the survivor is represented by an attorney.

“No victim of domestic violence should have to live in fear for their safety because they can’t afford legal protection,” Heitkamp said. “We can do better.”

The legislation was modeled after pro bono summits Sullivan held in Alaska when he was the attorney general for the state. Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) sponsored a companion bill, H.R. 1762, in the House.