Event Examines Ideas Driving Domestic Violence Advocacy


Fordham Law School’s Access to Justice Initiative and the National Center for Access to Justice convened a distinguished panel of practitioners and scholars on domestic violence to highlight how a variety of approaches to advocacy can help empower survivors, both in America and abroad, despite lawyer shortages and other barriers.

The July 17 event, “Enabling Domestic Violence Survivors to Protect Themselves: Implications of the Access to Justice, Legal Empowerment, Rule of Law and Pro Bono Movements,” featured discussions on achieving compensation for survivors, the role of lawyers in domestic violence cases, and how domestic violence is handled across the world, among other topics. David S. Udell, executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice, served as moderator for the event.

Udell co-founded the Access to Justice Initiative, along with Fordham Law Dean Matthew Diller and former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and guides the Justice Index, a project of NCAJ’s that tracks and ranks states based on steps they are taking to provide access to justice, and that illuminates justice system policy in the field of domestic violence and other areas of legal practice.

The event offered an unusual opportunity for students, advocates, academics, judges, and other actors in the field to briefly step back from the demanding work they do on a daily basis, and to consider the ideas and principles that drive their work and that inform the many differing approaches to advocacy. More than 80 people attended the event.

Defining access to justice goals as they relate to domestic violence can be difficult because of a lack of available attorneys and differing views on the role of attorneys and of technology innovations in expanding or limiting the capacity of survivors to take control of their own lives.

“On the one hand, the vision of representation is a very powerful one,” Udell noted about the prospect of more attorneys for survivors. “On the other hand, if a lawyer is not going to be available for everyone, what else can be done and what other approaches become important? Should we consider the idea for self-help as a lesser form of assistance than is provided to people by advocates, or is it instead as a form of legal empowerment that is advantageous, even relative to legal representation, in equipping people to make their own choices and to handle matters on their own?”

Part of the answer is for the judicial system to allow survivors to make decisions on their own, trusting in their capacity to learn to do so, according to Julieta Marotta, a visiting fellow at the National Center for Access to Justice, who is deputy academic program director of the Master Public Policy and Human Development program at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and who wrote her thesis on access to justice and legal empowerment issues surrounding domestic violence.

“As long as the legal system allows the victims to make choices, you see empowerment,” said Marotta. “You see self-awareness and, even if they’re not able to solve the conflict at the moment, they’re processing the fact they’re capable of doing this by themselves.”

Marotta observed that many of the survivors she had interviewed had reported being disoriented and worn down by justice system proceedings. Oftentimes survivors learn more about their rights from other survivors or from television ads than they do from the legal system or lawyers, Marotta added, noting this is particularly true in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the bulk of her thesis work of interviewing survivors occurred.

Domestic violence is recognized as a global problem, but one for which policy and culture, including religious values, make a difference that advocates can benefit from examining and understanding, the panelists explained. In Brazil, for instance, legislation has been passed that establishes a duty of the state to prosecute abusers once an instance of domestic violence is reported, and regardless of the extent of the injury, added Endy Moraes, a fellow with Fordham Law’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work. Such automatic law-enforcement is intended to assert the rule of law and to punish wrongdoers, but with its automatic trigger it also risks re-victimizing the women going through the process, Moraes observed.

Moraes also observed that religion can be an important consideration in the field.

“Advocates need to understand that sometimes religious beliefs can paradoxically be both a source of assistance and a barrier to women surviving domestic violence,” she said. “As a source of assistance, religious beliefs can encourage women to resist their mistreatment. As a barrier, misunderstandings of scripture can sometimes inhibit women from taking action to escape their hazardous circumstances.”

While the role of an attorney can be essential in a given case, seeking a legal representative as a domestic violence survivor in the United States can often involve making dozens of inquiries to legal aid providers that may not ultimately lead anywhere, shared Sonya Passi, founder and CEO of FreeFrom, a national organization dedicated to empowering survivors to achieve economic justice and financial security.

At FreeFrom, Passi is working to provide survivors an opportunity to seek their own recourse without necessarily having to find an attorney. For instance, survivors have four potential routes: 1) relying on counsel to sue the abuser, 2) going to small claims court, 3) seeking damages in criminal restitution, and/or 4) receiving a disbursement from a general fund for crime victims. Only suing the abuser requires the aid of a lawyer, she noted, highlighting the need survivors have to become aware of their options, and the innovative models FreeFrom is developing to make the critical information readily available.

“Survivors are so often their own advocates anyway. If we can give them the tools to understand their options and advocate for themselves in an informed way, that’s true legal empowerment,” Passi said. Her remarks focused attention on concerns about ways in which service provision across the field—not only in advocacy carried out by lawyers but also in the provision of shelter and other emergency measures—can take a patriarchal form that undermines a survivor’s sense of agency and independence and make it harder to establish long-term safety.

Akhila Kolisetty, a staff attorney with Sanctuary for Families, based at the Brooklyn Family Justice Center, also participated on the panel, helping to tie together the different motivating philosophies and to explain their respective places in the holistic response to the problem of domestic violence. Kolisetty described drop-in family justice centers across New York City where survivors can go to receive a broad range of services, emphasizing the importance of a comprehensive approach to addressing survivors’ interlinked needs. She also described the phenomenon in which legal interventions succeed, but only for a period of time, noting that in relationships it is unusual to see the abuser’s behavior never recur, or greatly improve. Finally, she discussed how lawyers can support legal empowerment.

“Legal empowerment is a process enabling survivors to know, use and shape the law,” she said. “Lawyers, paralegals, and other justice system actors can be empowering or disempowering when they work with survivors; it is the method by which they work with survivors that matters.”

She described how an emphasis on legal empowerment can prepare many survivors to represent or advocate for themselves as a means of securing access to justice.

Several speakers (some participants drawing on personal experience, either as domestic violence advocates or, in some instances, as survivors) remarked on the extraordinary difficulty survivors encounter in preserving their autonomy and prevailing in their cases. Across the country there are gaps in service, and for too many people no advocate is ever available. Although coordination among differing approaches is improving and although new approaches are coming online, audience members and panelists were in broad and emphatic agreement that so much more remains to be done.

The National Center for Access to Justice, the national organization that is working with data to accomplish change that expands access to justice in our society, organized and co-sponsored the event with the Feerick Center for Social Justice, the Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work, International & Non-J.D. Programs, and the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice.

The Access to Justice Initiative at Fordham Law focuses the collective public service energy of the School to deliver on the promise of equal justice, which lies at the core of our concerns as a service-oriented institution and is the foundational bedrock of our constitutional society, through teaching, direct service, and scholarship, research and advocacy. The following centers and institutes, in particular, pursue access to justice issues in their work: Center on Race, Law and Justice; Feerick Center for Social Justice; Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work; Leitner Center for International Law and Justice; National Center for Access to Justice; Stein Center for Law and Ethics; and Urban Law Center. Learn more: law.fordham.edu/atoj


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