OPINION: Should city provide free divorce lawyers for victims of domestic violence?
At first glance, it looks like a good idea. Brooklyn Councilmember Mark Treyger’s bill, which would mandate free legal representation for victims of domestic violence seeking a divorce, has earned praise from victims’ advocates in Queens and across the city.
Brian Dworkin, the director of the Domestic Violence and Family Law Advocacy Project at Queens Legal Services said, “This [bill] would help level the playing field for survivors [of domestic violence] on financial issues.”
“A lot of people can’t afford to have a lawyer and are forced to represent themselves, and they often don’t understand what’s happening,” he said. “They sign away their rights,” he said, adding that the courtroom can intimidate and confuse people, especially survivors of abuse. “We try to do our best for the safety of clients and also for their financial stability.”
That sounds good, but as usual the devil is in the details. Queens Legal Services is already strained to the max. Without a substantial government appropriation, where will the funding come from to pay for the new attorneys and support staff?
Treyger’s bill would require the Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator to create programs that would provide free, full legal services for victims of domestic violence who could otherwise not afford the cost of divorce proceedings. Treyger concedes that attorneys’ fees can add up to thousands of dollars — “Money,” he says, “most people cannot afford to spend.”
His bill will cost the city a lot of money. Does the councilmember have a budget for his bill?
What will the standard be for determining who is, in truth, a victim of domestic abuse?
Will legal charges relating to domestic violence need to be resolved first, before Legal Services gets involved?
“[Abuse] is not just about physical violence,” Dworkin said. “It’s about power and control issues. The ability to have a lawyer step in should help alleviate some of those power and control issues and help people not feel threatened.”
But if there is no “physical violence,” then there is no police report, making it difficult to substantiate domestic violence. That doesn’t mean that verbal abuse can’t be a form of violence. It certainly can. But it’s harder to prove.
Safe Horizon, which for years has provided a valuable service to the city, credits Treyger for attempting to offer “pathways to safety for victims of domestic violence who might otherwise be trapped in abusive marriages due to a lack of resources.”
Treyger’s bill is well-intended. However, we think the City Council should tread carefully before creating services that may well be redundant and will most certainly be expensive.