New UW clinic will help domestic abuse victims seeking legal protection from abusers
For a victim of domestic violence, having to go to court for protection from an abuser can be a difficult and stressful process, one that a new UW Law School program aims to make easier.
“In the past he has threatened to kill me if I ever leave or divorce him,” one woman wrote about her spouse in a recent restraining order petition. “I am very scared, that threat is always in my head and I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t want to live like this anymore, I’m tired. I just want to live my life.”
But getting legal protection in the form of a temporary restraining order, and then a years-long injunction, can be hard for those who may be facing the worst stress of their life and must turn for relief, alone, to a court system that they’re ill-equipped to navigate.
That’s why Shannon Barry, director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Services in Madison, said she’s excited that the UW-Madison Law School will early next year launch a new restraining order clinic, made possible by federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds administered by the state Department of Justice.
The VOCA Restraining Order Clinic, when it begins accepting clients in February, will provide second- and third-year law students to represent domestic abuse victims during injunction hearings in court, said Marsha Mansfield, a UW-Madison family law professor and director of the school’s Economic Justice Institute.
The clinic will provide not only a public service but will allow law students to get courtroom experience under the supervision of an instructor, who Mansfield said will be hired by the end of the year to lead the program. Because domestic abuse injunction cases are short-lived compared to other kinds of court cases, lasting weeks instead of months, students will have the advantage of being able to see them through from beginning to end, she said.
“The program would allow students to have the experience of going to court to represent people,” she said.
Up to six students at a time will belong to the clinic, Mansfield said. They’ll receive training after UW’s winter break ends in January and be ready for clients in February. The program will be available initially to clients in Dane County, but Mansfield said there are plans to make it available in Sauk, Jefferson and Rock counties as well.
Local domestic abuse advocacy agencies will be able to refer clients to the program, and victims will also be able to contact it directly, Mansfield said.
There are some legal resources already available to domestic abuse victims. Virginia Escudero, legal program coordinator at DAIS, said legal advocates at DAIS can help clients file for a restraining order, create a safety plan, prepare for the final injunction hearing before a judge and provide support during the hearing.
But Barry said the advocates are not lawyers and cannot offer legal advice. Since 2012, DAIS has also partnered with the law firm of Quarles & Brady, and its pro bono domestic violence injunction program. This year, Escudero said, DAIS has made about 100 client referrals to Quarles & Brady, which has taken on 53 as clients, with decisions on four others pending.
Emily Feinstein, a lawyer at Quarles & Brady, coordinates its program and trains lawyers from other firms interested in representing DAIS clients in restraining order cases, Escudero said. Other local firms, including Community Justice Inc., Boardman & Clark, Von Briesen & Roper and Pines Bach, also provide legal help, she said.
Having a lawyer on their side can also help victims who suddenly find themselves stripped of resources, while their abuser may have the money to hire an attorney to argue his or her side in court.
“Being able to have an attorney who is there, or even an advocate, is critical to leveling the playing field,” Barry said.
Having an attorney, she said, has been shown to lead to better outcomes for domestic abuse victims seeking injunctions, so having law students from UW will help.
“So the more the merrier, as far as we’re concerned,” Barry said.
A person seeking a temporary restraining order against another person begins the process by filing a petition form. The form is immediately evaluated by a court commissioner, who can issue a short-term temporary restraining order. If the court commissioner finds the petition is insufficient, the process may end there. But most of the time the case proceeds to a later hearing for a longer-term injunction before a judge. Injunctions can last for up to 10 years.
In Dane County last year, 393 domestic abuse restraining order cases were filed in court, and 368 were filed in 2018 as of mid-November, said Carlo Esqueda, Dane County clerk of court. The vast majority of the petitions submitted resulted in temporary restraining orders being issued.
Of the cases in which a TRO was issued in 2017, 186 resulted in longer-term injunctions issued by a judge. So far in 2018, 166 injunctions have been issued as a result of domestic abuse-related petitions.
For now, Mansfield said, the restraining order clinic will focus on preparing clients for injunction hearings, but she’s also hoping that at some point students can get involved earlier in the process when clients have to write their initial petition.
“Many victims who go to seek a restraining order have never been to court before,” she said. “To have a legal advocate help write out their paperwork can make a huge difference.”
The clinic is being funded by a VOCA grant of about $100,000 in its first year. The grant is renewable for up to three years, Mansfield said, and “hopefully beyond that.”
She said she’s also hoping that the clinic will eventually become a “holistic, seamless way” of providing other forms of legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, in such areas as housing and family law.