Tuesday, October 22, 2019

EXCLUSIVE: New York City councilman pushes free divorce lawyers for domestic violence victims

March 31, 2019  

Domestic violence victims seeking to divorce their abusive spouses would be entitled to free legal representation under a proposal being introduced into the City Council Wednesday.

The bill, from Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn), would require the city to provide full legal representation for domestic violence victims engaged in divorce proceedings — a process that even at its least expensive can wind up being more than victims, who often wind up in shelter, can afford.

“I believe this is an issue of basic decency, fairness and justice for victims of domestic violence, to make sure that they have the basic resources to escape and secure their freedom,” Treyger said. “There is no cost too great for someone to secure their freedom and secure their justice.”

While the state provides the poor with free attorneys for matters handled in family court — including domestic violence proceedings and custody battles — divorces are handled in state Supreme Court, where there is not a right to an attorney. That means that even in the best case scenario of an uncontested divorce, victims of domestic violence would be faced with spending hundreds of dollars on filing fees. The legal bills for contested divorces can run much higher.

Treyger said he was inspired to introduce the legislation after reading a New York Times report on the hurdles victims face when trying to divorce an abuser — including being required to find them and serve them with divorce papers.

“The onus is on them to gather enough resources, and that’s horrible,” Treyger said. “There are countless women who face great difficulty carrying financial burdens taking care of children who are just trying to seek their freedom.”

New York has previously extended the right to counsel to other non-criminal court cases — including providing free lawyers for all children and most adults facing deportation in immigration court, and for low-income tenants facing evictions in housing court.

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