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A bitter choice for domestic violence survivors: Pay an expensive lawyer — or represent themselves

Judge Amanda Maris rocked her gray chair back and forth at the mahogany bench in her courtroom, where she was hearing cases involving domestic violence.  

On this October morning at the Durham County Courthouse, only two people sat in the gallery. The metal hinges of the courtroom doors suddenly unlatched. A short brunette with red highlights entered and speed-walked up to the table where the accuser typically sits, followed by her grandmother. The brunette, named Amy, sported a denim outfit. The grandmother wore a faded paisley blouse.

Amy was seeking a temporary protective order against her ex-boyfriend. She didn’t show up with an attorney, and none would arrive. 

An office assistant who desperately hoped to ultimately win a full protective order, she didn’t want to represent herself. But she essentially had no choice. 

A shortage of lawyers 

Domestic violence cases involve both criminal and civil proceedings.  The criminal proceedings are pursued by the District Attorney’s (DA) office under charges such as aggravated assault.  Aggravated assault must cause serious bodily injury or must involve a gun or knife. As of early October, the Durham Police Department had received 160 complaints of domestic aggravated assaults this year. 

These 160 victims may also file protective orders or custody petitions to protect children from an alleged abuser. These proceedings are civil court hearings, which means that in her case, Amy was technically the plaintiff. But, unlike in criminal court, here there is no constitutional requirement for a lawyer. 

Many low-income victims in Durham, unable to hire private attorneys, turn to North Carolina  Legal Aid’s Durham office.  In three of four civil cases in the U.S, one side is not represented by a lawyer. Legal Aid is the primary source of free civil advice for domestic violence  survivors because of its partnership with the Durham Crisis Response Center (DCRC), which provides services to survivors of  domestic violence and human trafficking.

“They (legal aid) have a committed team that we trust with our most vulnerable survivors,” said Michele Archer, director of the Family Justice Center at the DCRC. 

Legal Aid’s Durham office handles roughly 30 to 60 domestic violence cases a month, accepting about 90 percent of those referred to them by the DCRC, the police department and other community partners, according to GiGi Warner, Legal Aid’s domestic violence and family law supervising attorney. 

Ten percent are typically turned away because Legal Aid doesn’t have enough lawyers to represent them. At the same time, many domestic violence victims are unaware of Legal Aid’s services. Combined, scores of low-income survivors of domestic violence in Durham end up pursuing their cases without a lawyer. 

‘He won’t leave me alone’

Amy was supposed to arrive at 10 a.m. for the temporary protective order proceeding (known as an ex parte hearing). She arrived at 10:46. 

She and her grandmother sat at the plaintiff’s table. The defendant never showed up.

Ex parte hearings grant  temporary protective orders, usually up to 10 days, until a final hearing. (The defendant doesn’t need to attend the initial hearing, but must be present at the final one, at which the judge decides whether to grant a full protective order.) Amy navigated this process with some guidance from the DCRC,  but she couldn’t get a Legal Aid lawyer. She’s among the 10 percent who didn’t make the cut. 

The courtroom clerk swore Amy in while her grandmother rubbed her back. Maris flipped through a folder and gently asked, “What led you to file this protective order request today?” 

“On multiple occasions the defendant put his hands on me,” Amy said, sitting next to the empty defendant’s table. “The most recent time scared me the most.”

(The 9th Street Journal is not fully identifying Amy in order to protect her safety.)

That time was in June. Amy told the court that she and her then-boyfriend were driving home from Food Lion one afternoon when they started arguing about late utility bills. By the time they arrived at his home–where Amy also lived–they were yelling.

“It got more loud, and I was afraid he was going to hit me, so I went into the bathroom,” she said. “But he followed me.” 

They scuffled, and she hit her elbow on the bathroom wall. She ended up in a corner in the bathroom, she said, “so I put my hands out like this.” She threw both arms straight out of her chest to demonstrate. As she continued her account, her voice broke. Her grandmother touched her hand.

Amy said the defendant threw her on a bed and punched her as she cried. He called her “a stupid b- – – -,” she recalled,  as he struck her petite frame. She lay in a fetal position. 

“When he stopped punching me,” Amy said, “he just sat down in a chair watching me cry.” 

The police charged him with assault on a female, which carries a sentence of up to 150 days in prison.

Amy  moved in with her grandmother. But, Amy said, her  ex-boyfriend incessantly called and texted her. He even showed up at her grandmother’s house. 

“I thought it was over when I moved out, but he won’t leave me alone,” Amy said, her shoulders folded. 

That’s how she ended up in domestic violence court. 

A one-time consultation

Her ex-boyfriend is free awaiting his criminal trial in February, and Amy said she fears more harassment, which is why she filed this protective order.  

“We encourage them (survivors) to file in civil court because it’s an extra protective cushion,” said Archer, of the DCRC. The order would force Amy’s ex-boyfriend to stay at least 100 yards away from her.  If he doesn’t, he could spend up to 150 days in jail. 

The DCRC referred Amy to Legal Aid in Durham, but her case was selected only for a one-time consult. Legal Aid does not comment on specific cases, but Warner did say staffing constraints pose a challenge.  

“When our staff lawyers reach the number of cases they can attentively handle in a month,” she said, “ there’s not much more we can do besides one-time consultations.” 

Amy had her consultation before the October hearing. Legal Aid staff told her how to describe the incident to the judge: Provide as much detail as possible, they said. They also assured her that 9 out of 10  temporary protective orders are approved. 

That’s not the case with full protective orders: In 2017, for instance, North Carolina judges approved only 34 percent of them. Many cases were dismissed because plaintiffs did not return to court for their final hearing. In some cases,  they didn’t have a lawyer to remind them of court dates.

Maris granted Amy the temporary order, and a final hearing was scheduled for a week later. In that proceeding, Amy would have to use evidence to show, not just tell, Maris why her ex-boyfriend should be ordered to leave her alone for one year. She would need  to navigate judicial rules of procedure and perhaps even negotiate with the defendant if he wanted to agree to the order without a trial. That’s a tall order for someone who isn’t an attorney. 

Lawyers are expensive. Charles Ullman, a Raleigh attorney who partly specializes in domestic violence cases, charges $120 an hour, which, he said, is “on the cheaper end.”

“These cases are pretty much always messy,” he said,  “which means you got to talk to neighbors, family, friends or any potential witnesses. That takes a lot of hours.” 

It takes six hours for Amy to make $120 from her office assistant job. 

Amy wasn’t likely to get the help of a lawyer. Her best bet was to seek support from third-year  law students at Duke University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, or North Carolina Central University who assist Legal Aid with domestic violence cases. Some non-profits provide one-time legal consults,  but can’t give in-court representations.

Which left Amy with two options: represent herself or incur debt to hire a private attorney.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said.  

Adejuwon Ojebuoboh