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Legal advocacy

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Once a woman enters a shelter, she may have several needs for legal information, advice or representation in court such as in relation to protection orders, understanding legal rights, legal proceedings related to marital separation, immigration or asylum (e.g. in cases of trafficking) and custody and access (sometimes called contact and residency) disputes. The many legal issues that can arise at one time during the woman’s early time in the shelter create a compelling need for access to legal resources.

Supporting access to an advocate is important in helping women to navigate and assess the multiple decisions she may be facing and legal processes that may start following an initial report of violence. The involvement of the legal system in a woman’s case, including the various authorities who may or may not be sensitive to the dynamics of gender-based violence, can create a disempowering situation for women, who may be faced with a number of unanticipated decisions and problems. For example, in cases of domestic violence, this may include what to do when the offender is released, where to go, what to tell the children, how to access financial resources, and what to tell authorities if she doesn't wish to leave the home.

When combined with the emotions that result from the violent experience, these decisions are even more difficult. An advocate can be essential in:

  • Providing the understanding and assistance needed to for women cope through the crisis and immediate decisions required.
  • Supporting access to resources needed to address her specific situation.
  • Providing the level of support needed to prevent women from feeling overwhelmed, unsupported, and unable to follow through with legal processes, (which can result in women's decision to drop restraining orders, not follow through with prosecution, and be reluctant to contact the legal system in future).
  • Attending all court proceedings; accompanying the survivor upon request when she attends the proceedings; and facilitating contact with court personnel. When the woman does not attend, the advocate reports the outcome of court proceedings to the woman.
  • Maintaining contact with the woman throughout the period of court proceedings to keep her informed about case developments and outcomes, and to support her wishes regarding case disposition through communication with court personnel.

Having advocates make the initial contact with women who become involved in the criminal justice system following a violent incident helps to ensure that the woman is given an opportunity to receive support and information that may be useful in navigating her legal options. Relying on women to make the first contact fails to effectively support access to the services needed to promote her safety, and at a critical time when she may be even more vulnerable to her abuser's influence and further violence.

Women are often unable or unwilling to make the first contact with legal advocates for reasons that include:

  • Negative experiences with previous help-seeking, which reduces likelihood of requesting assistance again.
  • Fear of blame and accusations, or concerns that the perpetrator will convince authorities that the woman is at fault or has committed a crime.
  • Fear of retaliation by the abuser.
  • Feeling overwhelmed and overwrought.

Shelters can play a role in legal advocacy through:

  • Receiving referrals from law enforcement agencies who come into contact with survivors, and providing outreach supports to assist them through their involvement with the justice system.
  • Providing legal consultation services on site at the shelter.
  • Facilitating access to consultation with legal counsellors who have special knowledge of issues facing women who have experienced or are at-risk of specific forms of violence (Thelen, 2000).

Example: Bringing Justice Home, Colorado, United States

For six years a domestic violence resource vehicle (DV/RV) has been covering over 18,000 square-miles of the Rocky Mountains in the State of Colorado to provide free legal representation to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault.  A state grant and foundation funds support this traveling law office and rescue programme, which provided life-saving legal redress for intimate partner abuse to over 1,500 individuals during that timeframe. The legal programme called "The Bringing Justice Home Project" was an initiative of Crossroads Safehouse a domestic violence shelter and services organization.