A Simple Way to Reduce Domestic Violence

(Based on a HuffPo piece by Melissa Jeltson)

A report from the Institute for Policy Integrity proposes a simple way to reduce domestic violence: give victims free lawyers. Lawyers are expensive, women needing them often can’t afford them. Without counsel, it can be tougher for women to get protective orders, leave their abusive partners, escape the violence-cycle, maintain work commitments, amass hospital bills they cannot satisfy. 

With one in four U.S. women estimated to become victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime, the horror has broad and deep economic consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say domestic violence costs us at minimum $9.05 billion yearly. 

Providing free or subsidized legal representation to victims, the report concludes, may well reduce domestic violence and would be cost-effective as it would likely result in lower associated health care and legal costs. 

Not only are there rights and ethics at skate here, but support for domestic violence survivors makes economic sense: when we invest in education or infrastructure, few see a problem because the benefits of doing so clearly justify the cost. This holds for investment in  domestic violence services and prevention. Investing in attorneys for domestic violence victims can change individuals’ lives and society. A domestic violence victim is more likely to receive a protective order if she has a lawyer when she applies. According to the report, up to 83%  of victims represented by an attorney successfully obtained a protective order; without one far fewer get these orders, as much as more than 50% fewer. With such orders, women are less likely to experience violence. While protective orders are frequently violated (roughly 40 percent of the time),  they can be effective at reducing violence’s frequency and severity. 

Survivors find these protective orders crucial in increasing their ability to stand up against the abuser, to communicate that abuse is in every instance wrong, impossible to justify, and to start receiving strategies needed to leave the relationship. 

Too, a free or  largely subsidized lawyer can provide critical help with related legal issues that may hinder women from leaving, such as child custody, immigration status and housing. Victims are often desperate for these services;  it’s a decent society’s job to provide them and yet in 2014, while over half the programs were able to have an advocate accompany a domestic violence survivor to court,  just 11% were able to offer legal representation. Funding cuts forced some programs to cut these important services entirely, others have reduced them by up to 66%.

Unsurprisingly, the programs’ second-most common request for help that they were unable to provide was legal representation. (The first, of course, was for housing.) 

The National Network to End Domestic Violence says  “…from obtaining a simple restraining order to preventing a violent abuser from obtaining custody, the availability of a knowledgeable and affordable attorney can mean the difference between survival and disaster.”

The report recommends that states and municipalities consider giving domestic violence victims free or reduced-cost counsel for protective order proceedings and other related legal matters.

As with most justice moves, this one, too, is cost-effective.