A Family Law Practitioner’s Guide to Representing Domestic Violence Victims
By Djung Tran
Djung Tran is a staff attorney at A Woman’s Place Legal Assistance Program in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and can be contacted at djung253@gmail.com.
As a staff attorney at an agency providing services to victims of domestic violence, all of my clients have suffered from this form of violence. In a family law practice, chances are that sooner or later you will also encounter such a client.
Domestic violence is defined as abusive treatment of a person by a family member or intimate partner. The abuse can be physical, emotional, mental, or any other method that aims to demean and control, such as limiting someone’s access to money and friends or family.
The following “how to” guide will help family law practitioners effectively and compassionately represent victims of domestic violence.
How to identify domestic violence
While some clients in your family law practice may readily inform you about domestic violence, others may be reluctant to reveal what they consider a shameful failure in their personal lives. As a practitioner, you should be on alert for several of the following signs, which may indicate that your client is a victim of abuse:
  • low self-esteem for no obvious reason;

  • a sense of something missing, or a logical gap, in the client’s story;

  • a high level of anxiety about how the opposing party will react to a proposed action that could potentially anger that opposing party;

  • attempts to accommodate unreasonable demands from the opposing party, even at the cost of furthering the client’s interests; and

  • a high level of anxiety about face-to-face encounters with the opposing party.
How to establish a supportive environment
To establish a productive rapport with the client, it is important for you to:
  • acknowledge that the abuse happened;

  • communicate to the client that you do not believe that she or he deserved to be abused;

  • communicate to the client that she or he is not responsible for the actions of the abuser;

  • not blame the client for staying in the abusive relationship; and

  • not become your client’s de facto mental health counselor if you are not qualified to provide such a service; should your client need therapeutic counseling, refer her or him to your local domestic violence support service agency.
How to provide effective representation
In family court, the fact that your client has been abused by the opposing party may or may not play a direct role in your case. Although it is tempting to highlight the abuse to claim the moral high ground, be careful not to overemphasize it when the court’s decision-making process is not contingent upon whether there has been abuse. However, it is good practice to let the court know that abuse is present in a case, especially if it helps explain otherwise inexplicable actions taken by your client.
Another consideration in highlighting domestic violence in the courtroom is the judge’s level of training and education in this issue. If the judge is not familiar with the dynamics of domestic violence, respectfully provide reference materials.
Sometimes, a client’s memory of specific abusive incidents is fuzzy or nonexistent, especially in longer-term relationships where abuse has been ongoing and overwhelming. Try to unearth specific egregious incidents by interviewing the client’s other family members or close friends. They may have a little distance from the incident(s) and therefore may be less traumatized and better able to recall details.
Regarding the abuser, keep in mind that while you may not find him or her to be an impressive figure, you have not lived under that person’s control or been subject to that person’s abuses. Be alert to the possibility that the abuser may be sending coded signals to try to intimidate your client during face-to-face encounters.
Your client may be afraid of being in the abuser’s presence. To avoid face-to-face contact, request of court personnel that your client and the abuser not be in the same room during a conference. For custody evaluations, request that the evaluator not conduct joint sessions with your client and the abuser. If such requests are refused in the first instance, it may be important enough to the mental health of your client to appeal the denial to a higher authority.
For more information about legal representation of domestic violence victims, visit:
  • ABA Commission on Domestic Violence www.abanet.org/domviol/home.html

  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) www.ncadv.org

  • The National Network to End Domestic Violence www.nnedv.org