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Domestic violence courts: How your help is needed

Thousands of lawyers, law firms, law schools and pro bono organizations across the country participated in volunteer events as part of the National Celebration of Pro Bono, which ran from Oct. 20-26. This year, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez asked attorneys to address the need for legal assistance for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Two groups answering that call were the Washington Council of Lawyers and the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. (NVRDC), which offered tours of D.C. Superior Court, Domestic Violence Division, on Oct. 21 and 24.

The Washington Council of Lawyers is the public interest bar association for the District of Columbia. NVRDC is staffed by both attorneys and case managers, and provides legal services, advocacy and case management  for victims of domestic violence, in addition to serving all other crime victims. Their pro bono program offers opportunities for lawyers to represent victims of crimes in three areas: crime victims’ rights, civil protection order cases and during a university-based on-campus judicial process administered under Title IX.

Alex Scott, pro bono coordinating attorney at NVRDC, led the tour and showed a number of ways volunteer attorneys can serve. She said that up to 75% of NVRDC clients are engaging the organization’s services due to having experienced a sexual assault. The staff and volunteer attorneys representing those clients practice at DC Superior Court.

The domestic violence (DV) hallway of the courthouse features courtrooms where both civil and criminal cases are heard. Many clients are petitioning for civil protection orders (CPO), which are typically one-year orders that forbid threatening, stalking, harassing, assaulting, destroying property and contact.

In order to get a CPO, it must be established that a crime was committed, and that it was committed against someone where there was a “special relationship,” Scott said. The exception is for sexual assault or stalking, where a stranger could commit the offense but the victim can still apply for a CPO.

The initial hearing for a CPO sets the trial date, usually for two weeks after the petition is filed. Sometimes with pro bono cases, Scott said, NVRDC will ask for a continuance to accommodate safety planning, discovery, exhibits that need prepping, etc.

At 8:30 a.m. each weekday, clients check in on this hallway, although it could be hours before the case is heard.

On the trial date, the petitioner comes to Courtroom 113, meets with the attorney negotiator (a neutral party who works for the court), states what the petitioner wants and then leaves. Then the respondent comes in and the offer is communicated. The attorney negotiator facilitates the conversation between the parties to see if they can reach an agreement, and if they can’t, the case proceeds to trial.

Ashley Carter, an Equal Justice Works fellow with the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP), described a clinic she established in the anteroom of CR114 for petitioners of civil protection orders who are not represented by lawyers. On Mondays and Wednesdays, clients can walk in and get free legal advice, and either be referred internally or out to a larger network of volunteer lawyers.

Across the hall, CR117 and CR118 are the DV criminal courtrooms, where the judges are specially trained in domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault.

In CR119, a magistrate judge hears requests for temporary protection orders, usually on the same day the petition is filed. The judge also hears requests via video from a remote location in southeast Washington.

The DV hallway also has an emergency medical office should a client experience something such as a panic attack or low blood sugar.

On another floor, cubicles house a number of legal and social service organizations aiding victims of domestic violence. DC Safe, a 24/7 crisis intervention agency for domestic violence, responds to a hotline, and its advocates work out a safety plan for the victims. The advocates are not attorneys, but they assist with drafting petitions for civil protection orders.

Jennifer Wesberry, director of operations, said the group had 9,000 intakes last year and receives about 12,000 calls a year on the response line. DC Safe has a satellite office in another part of the city as well as a shelter. Staff ride along with D.C. police on DV calls twice a week, and in the last quarter provided 531 Uber rides to transport victims to court, the shelter, the hospital, etc.

Scattered among the cubicles housing DC Safe staff are representatives from the metropolitan police department DV unit, Office of the Attorney General of D.C., Legal Aid, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, law school clinics and a crisis counselor. White noise machines among the cubicles provide privacy for client intakes.

The community of free legal services providers in D.C. that assist with civil protection orders is “robust,” Scott said, citing at least six organizations providing free legal representation in those cases. In contrast, crime victims’ rights is a must-less established area of law, she said, so NVRDC is the primary resource in D.C. NVRDC works to ensure that crime victims have a voice in the process, a right to privacy (including health, mental health and employment records), are active participants in justice and can be made whole after the crime.

Visit the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence to learn about association initiatives. To locate pro bono opportunities in your area, check out the ABA’s National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide.

The National Celebration of Pro Bono is sponsored by the ABA Center for Pro Bono.

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