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Victims of violence including domestic, sexual assault and stalking face a plethora of barriers when working to obtain independence from their abusers. Too often those who have experienced violence or stalking are traumatically revictimized in the court systems when they do not have the resources to obtain legal counsel to help empower them to seek justice and freedom from the abuse. The Power Act has been introduced to the House and Senate to mandate the promotion of Pro Bono legal services provided by attorneys to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. If enacted, judges would be mandated to hold an event to encourage Pro Bono legal services to victims at least once a year (or every two years for Tribal Judges) and report when they hold the event and how it went for annual review by Congress.
As an advocate for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking I am constantly trying to identify resources for free or low-cost legal counsel for my clients to obtain protection orders, divorce or child custody decrees or assist them in criminal court cases. Unfortunately, it is common for our clients to have to represent themselves pro-se or to be intimidated and shy away from the court system altogether. We also have many abusers who have access to the finances needed to secure top-notch counsel and spend years revictimizing our clients in the court room. Access to affordable attorneys is the largest barrier our clients have, and is often the reason victims end up returning to their abusive partner or are unable to keep an abuser away after a sexual assault or stalking incident. With this legislation, there would be encouragement from judges to lawyers in their area to provide pro bono services to these victims of abuse, with oversight by Congress.
Senate Bill S. 717: POWER Act is a National level bill that was modified from an earlier version in 2015 (S.2280). This bill is titled “An Act to promote pro bono legal services as a critical way to empower survivors of domestic violence.” Or for short, “Pro bono Work to Empower and Represent Act of 2017” or the “Power Act”.
The goal of this bill is to make it a law that United States Attorneys or their designees (judges) must participate at least once a year (or once every three years for Tribal Chief Judges) in a public event that promotes and encourages attorneys in their area to provide pro bono services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. They must then submit a report detailing how each event went and what goals were met to the Attorney General by October 31. The Attorney General will use those reports to submit a summary to Congress by January 1, which will then be used to determine what goals were met and how future events can be improved.
The goal and values of this legislature are to protect and prevent future harm to those who are abused and their families by encouraging “a dedicated army of pro bono attorneys focused on this mission” to “inspire others to devote efforts to this cause” and provide needed services to break the cycles of violence (S 717 RFH). The values stated in the bill were those abused and their families. Explicitly stated “….such violence or behavior harms the most vulnerable members of our society. Proactive efforts should be made available in all forums to provide pro bono legal services and eliminate the violence that destroys lives and shatters families.” (S 717 RFH).
Funding would come from existing money that the Department of Justice already has, but a cost estimate has not been received from the Congressional Budget Office (congress.gov, 2018). It was sponsored by Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and was introduced on March 23, 2017, and a year ago Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was added as a cosponsor along with 10 others. It was passed in the Senate on August 1, 2017 and then passed in the House with Changes on July 17, 2018 and passed back to the Senate. It is awaiting Senate approval at this time.
According to the Center for Disease Control, women are statistically at a much higher risk of being a victim of domestic violence (1 in 4), sexual violence (1 in 5) or stalking (1 in 6), therefore they would be the most impacted by this legislature, followed by children (1 in 15) and men (1 in 59). Despite class, violence effects all individuals from various races, education levels and income levels. Violence does not discriminate based on any demographic. However, because this legislature is focused on providing free legal services it would have a larger impact on lower and middle-class individuals and families, and likely would not be as needed for someone with the financial ability to afford their own attorney.
It is no surprise that this bill was sponsored by a Senator, Dan Sullivan, from Alaska and includes Tribal Judges, since American Indian and Alaska Native women experience the most violence in the United States at 47.5% (SafeHorizon.org/CDC, 2017). Many efforts and organizations have been created from the abundance of violence within indigenous populations, including this bill. Senator Sullivan is an avid human rights advocate who has prioritized protecting Alaska’s most vulnerable. He spearheaded the “Choose Respect” campaign as Attorney General to “combat Alaska’s high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault” (www.sullivan.senate.gov, 2018). Sullivan is also an attorney and worked as a judicial law clerk for many judges, so he is passionate about equal access to legal services for every citizen.
S. 717 is a bill that was modified from an earlier version in 2015 (S.2280). The new version, S. 717 was introduced on March 23, 2017, passed in the Senate on August 1, 2017 and then passed in the House with changes on July 17, 2018 and then passed back to the Senate. It is awaiting Senate approval at this time but only has a 3% forecasted likelihood of being passed in its current form.
In addition to Dan Sullivan who is the sponsor of this bill, he has 10 other co-sponsors including Heidi Heitkamp who is a democrat from Alaska, and Elizabeth Warren who is a democrat from Massachusetts. Heikamp explains that “by encouraging more partnerships in every state to provide pro bono legal services, we can help offer the education, awareness and legal tools for victims who would otherwise not be able to afford or seek the resources they need to escape, survive, and rebuild their lives.” (americanbar.org, 2018) “No victim of domestic violence should have to live in fear for their safety because they can’t afford legal protection, but for too many voiceless women and men across the country, that every day fear is their reality. We can do better,” said Senator Heitkamp (www.susanbrooks.house.gov, 2017).
According to Popvox.com, there is opposition from Indiana’s Third Congressional District, but there are no known opposers to this bill that I could find, even when considering possible opposers due to funding as it is planned on coming from fund the Department of Justice already has.
Everything about this bill promotes social justice and equality. At the core of any type of violence is the imbalance of power of one person over the other, and this is incredibly prevalent within the court system when one party has the financial ability to obtain legal counsel and the abused party does not. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which conducted a census over the course of one day in September 2014, more than 10,000 requests for services, including legal representation, were not met. This bill explicitly states that “As representatives of the Department of Justice, the duty of the United States Attorneys is to present “equal and impartial justice to all its citizens”, which should include, especially, survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking who might not otherwise know how to seek advice and protection.” (gpo.gov, 2017)
We are lucky in Boone County to have Mid-Missouri Legal Services which offers free legal counsel to low-income individuals who meet their criteria, however victims who are married to their abuser are often disqualified because their combined household income is used to determine eligibility of services and their spouse is often the breadwinner and makes too much money despite their separation. It is with these individuals we rely, but often cannot identify, pro bono attorneys that do not have eligibility requirements. We do our best to provide court advocacy which is essentially just physical and emotional support, but we cannot give advice or talk for clients as that would be practicing law without a license. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance to have legislature that reinforces and encourages the critical need for attorney’s to fulfill the American Bar Association Model Rule that states “every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, has a responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, and personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer” (gpo.gov, 2017).
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