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Report: Legal help cuts incidence of domestic violence, saves money

(This is a repost of an original Deseret News article published on August 14, 2015 by Marjorie Cortez)

SALT LAKE CITY — Free or low-cost legal services for people seeking protective orders would reduce incidence of domestic violence and lower associated societal costs, a new report states.

The Institute for Policy Integrity report found that victims are more likely to receive protective orders if they have legal representation.

The report, “Supporting Survivors: The Economic Benefits of Providing Civil Legal Aid to Survivors of Domestic Violence,” also found that the availability of civil legal aid may be “even more effective than alternative interventions such as the provision of shelters and counseling services.”

Stewart Ralphs, executive director of Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, said the report confirms family law attorneys’ long-held perceptions that protective orders curb domestic violence and enhance safety.

“We have intuitively known this for decades, and it’s heartening to see that studies confirm our belief that access to a free lawyer for victims of domestic violence truly does reduce domestic violence in our community,” Ralphs said.

Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake is a nonprofit civil legal aid agency that helps child and adult victims of domestic violence obtain protective orders and stalking injunctions for free regardless of income.

While it does not have the resources to track clients long-term, Ralphs said the agency contacts clients one year after a court has granted them a protective order. Ninety-one percent report there has been no further abuse and 95 percent report feeling safer.

Meanwhile, 69 percent of clients reported that their household incomes had remained stable or increased.

Legal Aid Society and partner agency Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit law office that performs a variety of civil legal services for people with low incomes, helped 3,687 individuals and 9,068 dependents escape abuse in Salt Lake City in 2014.

While the law offices’ primary role is to provide legal advice and represent clients in court, the agencies are also a “gateway” to other agencies that provide services that can help families experiencing interpersonal violence.

“It’s extremely rare when a victim of domestic violence says that the only thing they need addressed in their household is just a protective order,” Ralphs said.

Legal Aid Society’s partnership with YWCA Utah’s Family Justice Center “is even more efficacious” than simply offering legal services, Ralphs said.

The Family Justice Center brings together specialized services in one location where victims can report domestic violence-related crimes to police, get legal help with protective orders and stalking injunctions, speak to victim advocates, contact prosecuting attorneys to learn about the criminal process or discuss a pending criminal case, find shelter, housing and support groups, and obtain employment and job training.

“When we were just standing alone all we’d do is get protective orders and send you out the door (with a) ‘good luck.’ We were not meeting the needs of our clients,” Ralphs said.

“Now we can say, ‘Besides us getting this protective order, what kinds of things do we need to get you in touch with so we can meet all the needs of your family?'”

The report says domestic violence is a serious public health problem that has impacts beyond the victims themselves.

“In addition to the substantial costs to the victims, society is forced to bear a significant burden in the form of, among other effects, criminal justice costs, social services costs, and externalities on children. These substantial costs provide additional support for society’s interest in reducing the incidence of domestic violence through whatever policy tools are most cost-effective,” the report states

It adds that societal costs are reduced when people obtain protective orders because there are fewer criminal justice interventions, fewer people become homeless, and physical and mental health treatment costs are reduced because there are fewer assaults.

Each year, violence perpetrated by intimate partners generates costs in excess of $9.05 billion, the report says, although other sources place the figure around $6 billion annually.

States and municipalities should assess the evidence and consider adopting a policy granting domestic violence victims free or reduced-cost counsel in civil protective order proceedings, the report says.

While much of Legal Aid Society’s funding comes from federal grants, it has received state funding for the past six years, according to Ralphs. It is also a partner in And Justice For All, an umbrella organization for Utah’s primary civil legal aid agencies.

“Utah isn’t quite to par with some of our surrounding jurisdictions but they are investing in it at this point in time. I’m very pleased to have the state as a partner. The reason is, the Administrative Office of Courts. The courts can see when we have people represented by Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, by Utah Legal Services, instead of the person being a pro se litigant, the outcomes are so much better,” he said.

“We don’t clog up the legal system because they know what they’re doing to proceed expeditiously.”

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

Read the original article here.

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