By Rob Abruzzese, David Brand and Paula Katinas
A City Council bill that would mandate free legal representation for victims of domestic violence seeking a divorce has earned praise from victims’ advocates in Queens and across the city.
Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger introduced the bill on Aug. 8.
“Right now, it’s a two-tiered system. There’s a system for people who can afford counsel and for people who can’t,” said Brian Dworkin, the director of the Domestic Violence and Family Law Advocacy Project at Queens Legal Services. “This [bill] would help level the playing field for survivors on financial issues.”
Dworkin said the bill would have an overall positive impact on victims of domestic violence by helping them understand their rights and options in court.
“A lot of people can’t afford to have a lawyer and are forced to represent themselves and they often don’t understand what’s happening. They sign away their rights, he said, adding that the courtroom can intimidate and confuse people, especially survivors of abuse. “We try to do our best for the safety of clients and also for their financial stability.”
Queens Legal Services provides legal representation to domestic violence survivors in various types of domestic and family law matters, such as obtaining and enforcing protection orders, defending against retaliatory protection order and obtaining uncontested and contested divorces including the equitable distribution of marital property.
“[Abuse] is not just about physical violence,” Dworkin said. “It’s about power and control issues. The ability to have a lawyer step in should help alleviate some of those power and control issues and help people not feel threatened.”
Treyger said he introduced the bill to enable victims of domestic violence to obtain successful divorces. Attorneys fees can add up to thousands of dollars — money most people cannot afford to spend.
“There are countless victims of domestic violence who face great difficulty shouldering the financial burden throughout what is often a lengthy divorce process. This legislation will empower victims and help them move on with their lives,” Treyger said.
In recent years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed bills into law that provide attorneys for children and adults facing deportation in immigration court and another law is being phased in to provide attorneys to people facing eviction in housing court.
Litigants are entitled to lawyers in family court, but there is no right to counsel in divorce proceedings, which take place in the state Supreme Court. However, Section 35 of the Judiciary Law does provide certain litigants the right to file for divorce in the Supreme Court without having to pay.
Treyger’s bill would require the Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator to create programs that would provide free, full legal services for victims of domestic violence who could otherwise not afford the cost of divorce proceedings.
The bill will cover both uncontested and contested divorces, Treyger said. Severing marital ties to an abuser can be an important step for victims because it is a way for them to protect their financial assets and their privacy, he said.
Safe Horizon CEO Ariel Zwang said that Treyger deserved credit for “offering pathways to safety for victims of domestic violence who might otherwise be trapped in abusive marriages due to a lack of resources.”
Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women – New York, said the group receives numerous phone calls from women seeking help to obtain a divorce.
“Having a resource like this where a woman can get expert advice and a lawyer to ensure the court process makes headway is one of the most beneficial things we could do for battered women,” Ossorio said in a statement.