JFS Project DVORA Domestic Violence Services will focus on tzedek/justice throughout this year, including the impact justice has in the realm of domestic violence. While the justice system is supposed to help survivors, it is sometimes used against them, continuing the cycle of abuse and isolation.
There is a common perception that abuse stops when a person leaves their coercive partner. While this is the case for some, it’s hardly reality for all. Many survivors endure long legal battles with former partners who use the court system to maintain power and control. The extreme version of this is known as ‘abusive litigation.’
IF THE SURVIVOR ISN’T A CRIMINAL, WHY ARE THEY IN COURT?
Manipulation of the legal system can occur in a number of ways. In civil court, these tactics most often appear in family law cases. When ex-partners share children, a custody dispute can provide a prime foundation for abuse of the system.
Even with an established parenting plan, one partner can continuously file motions for clarification, requests to modify the plan, and even allegations of contempt. This can translate into hours of legal work and court appearances.
The pattern can continue for years, resulting in a vicious and exhausting cycle for the protective parent who has left an abusive situation.
In many cases, financial control becomes a central tactic to maintain power in an abusive relationship. This imbalance of resources can have consequences long after the relationship has ended — especially when the controlling partner has greater ability to seek legal counsel.
There is high demand for limited free legal resources. The pro bono lawyers who are available do not always have the family law expertise that is most needed.
Many clients end up representing themselves, resulting in a legal David and Goliath. The protective parent often becomes too emotionally and financially drained to use the legal system at all, even when needed — for instance, to tighten a parenting plan or file a protection order.
Continuous legal work and court appearances can interfere with finding and maintaining a job, making it harder for the survivor to establish financial stability.
Abusive litigation is stressful. The outcome of a legal case is out of the survivor’s control. It’s challenging to see a harmful ex-partner. Testifying in court in front of that abusive ex can be especially traumatic. It often requires revealing intimate or painful details in public, while enduring lies and accusations from the other party — all while maintaining composure to enhance credibility with the court.
Knowing how abusive litigation can leave a person feeling drained, alone and powerless, Project DVORA advocates regularly accompany clients in court. Whether helping to navigate the complexity of the system or physically blocking a client’s view of their ex-partner, the objective is to make the process as manageable as possible.
The physical presence of an advocate who is exclusively available as a support can make a world of difference. It helps survivors remember they are not alone.
If you or someone you know is being abused, contact Project DVORA, (206) 861-3159.
By Liz Coleclough, Director of Project DVORA Domestic Violence Services