The majority of parties in the nation’s family courts are unrepresented, including victims of domestic violence. In 2012, lawyers from Robinson & Cole LLP’s Business Litigation group in Hartford, Connecticut, started a program to use their trial and client counseling skills to address the needs of unrepresented victims of domestic violence. More than 30 trial lawyers from the firm have participated over the history of the program, which continues to grow today.
Robinson & Cole’s Domestic Violence Restraining Order Program (DVRO Program) provides pro bono legal representation to victims seeking restraining orders under Connecticut laws against family or household violence. Since 2012, Robinson & Cole’s lawyers have donated over 1,000 hours to the project. The DVRO Program receives its referrals from domestic violence nonprofits without regard to income.
The attorneys involved in the program receive training on the law and procedure underlying restraining order applications. The lawyers represent their clients at contested evidentiary hearings, giving more junior attorneys the opportunity to practice their trial skills in a supervised setting. They also work with nonprofit organizations focused on domestic violence prevention to refer clients for safety planning and counseling.
“It’s enormously gratifying to use our courtroom skills to help people so in need,” reports Nuala E. Droney, a founding partner of the DVRO Program: “It takes great courage for a victim to testify against an abuser in court, and the firm’s attorneys are honored to support victims through that process.” According to Kelly Frye Barnett, a litigation associate and long-time volunteer, the fact that the “program helps junior lawyers get experience examining witnesses, offering evidence, and making an argument to a judge makes it all the better.”
The Connecticut Judicial Branch recognized the DVRO Program as an example of a model by which private law firms ensure “that the participants are adequately trained as subject matter experts in the substantive area of the law and as a result, the volunteers can nurture and grow the program so it becomes a model for all pro bono programs to follow.” Support from the judges, clerks, and operations staff of the court has helped make the program a success. Cooperation, training, and referrals from local legal aid groups, violence prevention organizations, and women’s shelters also have been critically important to the program. Better still, working with these groups, DVRO Program attorneys have held trainings for other firms interested in starting similar programs in other local courthouses.