New Pro Bono Project Aids Victims of Domestic Violence

December 14, 2005
Cristi Head
Third-year law student Cristi Head organized the Domestic Violence Project's latest pro bono effort, the Legal Aid Program. (at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society office)

Most of the victims of domestic violence who walk into Charlottesville's Central Virginia Legal Aid Society office have struggled with abuse for a long time. The attorneys there can be their last hope.

"It's important to give domestic violence victims all the help we can so they don't return to a bad relationship," said third-year law student Cristi Head. This semester, Head spearheaded a new pro bono project under the auspices of the student-run Domestic Violence Project. The Legal Aid Program specifically focuses on the civil law needs of domestic violence victims.

"Oftentimes students don't realize there is work they can do in domestic violence outside criminal prosecution," she said. "We are working for the victims, and it's all centered around them. Getting that client contact appeals to students."

Head, a pro bono director of the Domestic Violence Project, first thought of starting the program while interning in the Richmond office of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society (CVLAS) over the summer. In forming the new project, she worked with CVLAS executive director Henry McLaughlin and Charlottesville office senior staff attorney Lily Patel and staff attorney Robin Edwards, who helped train the six volunteers.

Law School's Pro Bono Partnership with Hunton & Williams Targets Domestic Violence

Law students also have volunteered in domestic violence cases through the pro bono partnership between the Law School and the Hunton & Williams law firm. The partnership's family law program has paired 14 student volunteers with pro bono attorneys from the firm's Richmond office to handle custody, visitation, and support issues for victims of domestic violence.

Before the partnership, there were not enough family law attorneys in town to meet the legal needs of domestic violence victims, said Amy Earehart Lovelace, legal advocate outreach counselor for the Shelter for Help in Emergency, which provides shelter for more than 200 clients each year and offers counseling services to many more. "It's been an incredible benefit to have attorneys in town willing to take on cases for clients who need to have protective orders or to be represented in custody cases," Lovelace said. "We now have not had to turn away any Charlottesville or Albemarle County clients who needed representation in protective order cases. It's just been fantastic."

The students draft pleadings; interview clients and witnesses; file for divorce and protective orders; work on divorce settlement agreements; meet for initial consultations with clients; calculate spousal and child support; draft and answer discovery requests; and research legal questions for unique cases.

"It's been very helpful to us," said Patel. About 25 percent of her cases involve family law, and due to the high volume of cases, the office has mostly limited its efforts to those that involve domestic violence.

"There's a huge need for people who work in domestic violence," Patel said. "A lot of times the people who come to us are in imminent threat from their husband, and they want a divorce. For those with children, child support and visitation can become an issue."

First-year law student Greg Frischmann volunteered for the program because it offered him an immediate opportunity to get involved directly with the community. The "terrific" attorneys at CVLAS "have helped me understand the reality faced by many abused women," Frischmann said. "Abusive boyfriends and husbands often use the legal system to continue a pattern of abuse even after these women have managed to leave the relationship, and these women are often ill-equipped to face a lengthy legal dispute."

Frischmann recalled once racing to the courthouse to file a motion to prevent a client from being evicted the next day, succeeding with minutes to spare. "I didn't anticipate making such an immediate difference, but it is a good feeling to know that there are lawyers, like those at CVLAS, working to empower people on all tiers of society."

The Legal Aid Program is one of three pro bono projects the Domestic Violence Project (DVP) runs. Last year, more than 50 students contributed pro bono hours to Domestic Violence Project programs, said DVP executive director Jennifer Kies, and more than 160 law students are on the mailing list. "Many students are interested in the DVP projects because they provide immediate access to the litigation process and an opportunity to have a direct effect on domestic violence occurring in our community," said Kies, who noted that an estimated one in four women will be a victim of domestic abuse during her lifetime.

Students involved in the Commonwealth Attorney's Project interview domestic violence victims just prior to hearings, a volatile time for the victim, who may backpedal from prosecuting the abuser by changing her story. However, Charlottesville has a "no-drop" policy: once domestic abuse charges are filed, they will be prosecuted, which is intended to take some pressure off victims who may be tempted to change their story to avoid further abuse. Student volunteers also monitor domestic violence cases in surrounding counties through the Shelter for Help in Emergency's Court Monitoring Program. Gathered information is kept in a database, allowing for the comparison of judge's decisions and variances in rulings among the counties. "If judges are consistently ruling for the abuser, we're going to know," Head noted.

Head emphasized that although the Legal Aid Program focuses on indigent clients, domestic violence victims come from all economic backgrounds.

"The clients are sympathetic and it is rewarding to know we're helping people who really need legal counsel," Head said. "We're just trying to provide them with any extra support we can."

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