City Council bill would provide free divorce lawyers to victims of domestic violence
Advocates often argue that the biggest way to help victims of domestic violence is by providing them with the financial support they need to get out from their horrible situations. In Brooklyn, Councilmember Mark Treyger is trying to do his part by introducing a bill on Wednesday that would provide victims of domestic violence with an attorney during divorce proceedings.
The bill would require the Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator to institute programs that would provide free, full legal services that would include all filing fees. This is intended to help victims of domestic violence who could otherwise not afford the cost of a divorce, which can range anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 at a minimum for contested divorces.
“I believe this is an issue of basic decency, fairness and justice for victims of domestic violence, to make sure that they have the basic resources to escape their abusers and secure their freedom and safety,” Treyger said. “There are countless victims of domestic violence who face great difficulty shouldering the financial burden throughout what is often a lengthy divorce process. This legislation will empower victims and help them move on with their lives.”
This bill follows a trend in New York state to provide attorneys to the indigent. In recent years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed bills into law that provide attorneys for children and adults facing deportation in immigration court and another law is being phased in to provide attorneys to people facing eviction in housing court.
As Treyger pointed out, legal representation is available in family court, but there is no right to counsel in divorce proceedings, which take place in the state Supreme Court. However, Section 35 of the Judiciary Law does provide certain litigants the right to file for divorce in the Supreme Court without having to pay.
While divorce attorneys who spoke with the Brooklyn Eagle said that the news is an overall positive one for denizens of NYC, that Brooklyn already has a series of programs that provide free attorneys to indigent victims of domestic violence, and that this could help supplement those programs and provide assistance to those in need outside of the borough.
The Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project often will provide free divorce attorneys in no-contest divorces where the two sides split amicably. It routinely hosts training programs for attorneys who agree to take on pro bono cases.
The Matrimonial Pro Bono Project, which was started in 2014 by Hon. Jeffrey Sunshine, supervising judge for Matrimonial Matters in Brooklyn, and Hon. Nancy T. Sunshine, the county clerk a commissioner of jurors. They partnered with the Brooklyn Bar Association, the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association, and VLP with the help of attorneys Aimee Richter and Maria Coffinas in order to help pro se litigants in contested matrimonial actions. The project will provide attorneys to litigants at or below the federal poverty line and will also cover filing fees.
“This is a potentially fantastic thing for the domestic violence victims because it will put them on the same ground as the perpetrators of domestic violence,” said Carrie Anne Cavallo, president of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association. “Right now even if someone qualifies for programs like the pro bono project they sometimes have to wait weeks or months to get an attorney so this could, depending on the funding, provide immediate relief to victims.”
Cavallo added that she thinks that programs like the Matrimonial Pro Bono Project, and others similar to it in Brooklyn, have provided the evidence that a bill like this one is necessary for those outside of the borough.
“Brooklyn often leads the way on things like this,” Cavallo said. “We implement it and when people outside of the borough see how well it works things tend to trickle down to the other boroughs and upstate.”
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