In this Court Watch Project Blog post, we are examining the frequency and proportion of Petitioners and Respondents who have legal representation for their CPO hearing. While the DV civil protection order process is designed to be easy to access and pro se (parties can represent themselves without attorneys), it is permissible for parties to have legal representation.
A total of 116 of Petitioners and 139 of Respondents have been recorded as represented by attorneys-most of the others were either pro-se or absent. Of the total 767 cases that Court Watch volunteers have sat in on this year, 368 had data recorded for both parties with respect to representation; the following percentages are out of those which all data was present (so n/368).
The breakdown in the graph below displays that while most often both parties were not represented (44% of the time), the second most common arrangement was when only the Petitioner had counsel (26% of the time). Both parties were represented quite frequently (24% of the time), as compared to when only the Respondent had counsel (6% of the time).
Around 32% of the time, at least one party has representation. —where Petitioners have attorneys more frequently than Respondents This may give one party an advantage because the attorney is better able to navigate Court proceedings. If the Petitioner is surviving a pattern of abuse, having representation may equal out the playing fields in Court in cases where the abuser, or Respondent, is very manipulative or threatening. Petitioners may be afraid to come to court due to real or perceived threats, they may be very anxious about seeing or speaking out against their abuser or the Respondent may be able to manipulate the situation to make the Petitioner look less credible; these threats are increased if the Petitioner faces other life-generated barriers such as age, language, fear of coming out, or immigration. Having an attorney may lessen these threats and make it easier for the Petitioner to come to court and get the CPO.
Additionally, representation for parties in CPO cases can become vital if the case is convoluted. And indeed, of the 521 cases where the question of complicating matters was answered, 27% were reported to have complicating related cases—where other issues complicated getting the protection order such as custody, child support, visitation, and criminal cases.
If a Petitioner or Respondent cannot get pro-bono services, they either must go pro-se—or if, they feel it is important enough—pay the costs of legal representation. This varies depending on whether the counsel is for-profit, how many hours are required, and what the case involved—but can easily be over $1000 for an average CPO case. It is vital that parties which cannot afford legal counsel but feel they very much need it to try to find a lawyer or organization that can give free or sliding-scale counsel or at least out-of-court guidance.
There are various legal organizations which can be helpful for Petitioners and Respondents—often even representing them in court. Such free counsel for family court issues like CPOs, custody, or child support can be found for either party at Catholic Charities, Children’s Law Center, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, Whitman-Walker Clinic (mostly for LGBTQ and people living with HIV/AIDS), Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (for those facing homelessness in DC), American University Washington College of Law Domestic Violence Clinic,Catholic Universities of America Family Law Clinic , Tahirih Justice Center (for immigrant women/girls), Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) (for Latinos in DC), George Washington University Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics, Georgetown University Family Advocacy Clinic, and UDC Law Clinics. All of these places will want to conflict-check, and some will decide not to help a Respondent or a Petitioner if they feel that person is a primary or predominant aggressor.
Also, anyone can get help—but not legal representation—at the Family Court Self-Help Center and Landlord-Tenant Resource Center on issues that relate or often go hand-in-hand in the CPO process, such as figuring out who has rights over a property when one or both names are on the lease. Similarly, DC SAFE helps Petitioners go through the process (such as helping them compose the petition) but then cannot represent the client directly. DC SAFE therefore tries to connect Petitioners with free legal representation from the following organizations—most of which will only represent Petitioners: the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP), Ayuda (for immigrants), Break the Cycle,DVLEAP, Legal Aid, Bread for the City, AARP (for the elderly), Our Place DC (for those who have spent at least one day in jail), and OAG. These organizations represent survivors free of charge and are especially knowledgeable about the nature and patterns of domestic violence.