Survivors of violence against women (VAW) are often left to deal with negative aftereffects of their abuse even after their attackers have been charged and arrested. It does not help that the survivors of VAW continue to re-live their trauma before, during, and sometimes after the criminal or civil proceedings against their attackers have concluded. In fact, a controversial judgment in the UK last year has led to calls for judges to be trained in cases involving sexual violence. This comes as concerns have been raised over “outdated views” held by some judges on sexual violence.
Not only do survivors have to recall traumatic details of their abuse in great detail when giving their statement to the police, they are required to do so once again when seeking counsel from prosecutors and must often repeat their story again and again during trial. Survivors can also be accused of fabrication and lies which recreates fear of the original assault. This is also referred to as secondary victimisation or second rape which can affect the survivor’s mental health and well-being.
Therefore, both judges and lawyers play important roles in ensuring that survivors are not left feeling disoriented all over again during and after the trial. Justice is not simply about convicting a guilty perpetrator but also preserving the lives of those who have been abused and victimised. In addressing this immense problem, both judicial and legal professionals should work together with organisations and resources. It is already starting to happen in some parts of the world. For example, Canada has introduced a bill that requires judges to undergo sensitivity training when presiding over sexual assault cases.
This article lists out 16 ways for lawyers and judges to help survivors of VAW. If you are a lawyer or judge, not all of these suggestions and ideas may be relevant or suitable to you, your firm, or your court because the legal structure and laws differ according to country. However, we hope this article can serve as a useful starting point for taking action.
It’s time to stop violence against women. Together.
Written, researched, and compiled by Denishia Rajendran.
8 Actions lawyers can take to help survivors of VAW
Action #1: Explain the legal process
The legal process can be intimidating for survivors of VAW. Lawyers representing the survivor must be sure to explain the entire procedure to the survivor with clarity. This includes the manner in which the trial will be conducted and the types of questions that may be posed to the survivor. In many countries, coaching a witness is prohibited to ensure that the evidence from the survivor is not influenced or fabricated. However, in navigating the legal process, it is helpful for prosecutors or lawyers representing survivors to inform them of at least the kinds of questions that they should anticipate during trial.
Action #2: Analyse the risks and benefits of options available to the survivor
In civil cases concerning family disputes, a defendant may choose to offer a settlement. To avoid protracted legal costs and facing her abuser court, a survivor may easily choose to accept the settlement. It is crucial for the lawyer to analyse the risks and benefits with the survivor. This includes addressing issues like the kinds of negative consequences the survivor foresees and any potential benefits. These may be complicated concepts or difficult issues for the survivor to face but it is a lawyer’s duty to help her through it. Although the lawyer cannot make the decision for the survivor, he or she needs to ensure the survivor is making a well-informed decision while still offering her support.
Action #3: Ensure that the survivor has a safe space and environment
Throughout the duration of any legal proceeding, be it civil or criminal, the survivor’s safety is of utmost importance. Oftentimes, litigation proceedings in family court may mean that the survivor will continue to be in some form of communication with the abuser. As such, the lawyer representing the survivor should also consider the survivor’s safety on multiple levels. For example: lawyers and law firms handling domestic violence case could consider working with the local women’s shelter or domestic violence agency to ensure that the survivor has a safe place to stay and is receiving the necessary support from friends and family. In addition, lawyers representing survivors should also be aware of any dangerous loopholes and practices by family courts and be prepared to handle them.
Action #4: Blog about it
The internet is the quickest and easiest way to access information. It should come as no surprise that survivors of VAW looking for legal advice first search for information on the internet. It is crucial to ensure the information they access is accurate and helpful. Lawyers or law firms with a keen interest in combating VAW may choose to create blogs or write-ups on their professional websites addressing courtroom procedures, remedies available in court to survivors of VAW, interview sessions with the police, and even hyperlinks to various resources to contact for help. Such websites should also be made available to families of survivors of VAW. The key purpose in creating a blog or keeping an updated write-up is to ensure that survivors and families alike are well-informed on the legal procedures and options available to them.
Action #5: Connect survivors to resources
There are many different organisations and resources available for survivors of VAW but it is possible that survivors are unaware of them or feel unsafe approaching them unless assured of the their credibility. Lawyers assisting or representing survivors can help connect them to trusted resources or organisations. Such resources and organisations can help survivors move forward with their lives in many ways, including assisting them to find a new home or a job.
Action #6: Help survivors deal with emotional effects of VAW
It is possible that survivors of domestic violence may come in contact with their abusers even after leaving the martial home. This may arise in instances where the abuser has visitation rights with children. In such situations, it is possible for the abuser to continue to control the survivor through legal proceedings by filing repeated motions to modify custody or visitation orders. While a court case may end after an order is given, this is not necessarily the case for survivors of VAW. The fight for a normal life still continues for a survivor and her family. As such, lawyers can assist victims in dealing with the emotional effects of legal proceedings by continuing to provide support and assisting in safety plans where necessary. The Victims Rights Law Center, for example, contains a list of things that professionals can do to assist survivors of VAW.
Action #7: Partner with local organisations
Many organisations advocate for survivors of VAW and get involved in policy making. For example, vawnet.org and victimsrights.org are organisations that not only provide extensive information to survivors of VAW but also to professionals seeking to assist survivors of VAW. Partnering with such organisations can help lawyers in giving up-to-date advice on the latest changes on the law or legal procedures. These organisations can also help lawyers learn how to talk to, interview, and explain things to clients and their families in ways that are clear and easy to understand, empathetic, and empowering.
Action #8: Advise campus staff
The unfortunate truth is that VAW affects women of all ages, including university students. In fact, a recent report by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), shows that 11.2% of students experience VAW on campus and women between the ages of 18 to 42 are at higher risk of facing violence. Bearing this in mind, lawyers can help host talks and organise pro-bono sit-ins to allow survivors of VAW the opportunity to seek advice. Understanding the internal complaints system on campus and offering strategies to campus staff will enable survivors of VAW to feel safe to approach campus staff if they are experiencing any form of violence on campus. This will ultimately help limit the number of people that the survivor would have to talk to about their experience.
8 Actions that Judges can take to help survivors of VAW
Action #9: Ensure court clerks offer and provide the correct information to the survivor
A survivor would not necessarily be given direct access to a judge. As such, the judge should ensure that court clerks do not turn away survivors when they have queries. As much as judges and lawyers should be kept informed on how to address survivors, court clerks should be trained the same way. Offering the right information creates a sense of trust in the legal system, thereby encouraging the survivor to seek help or further information if necessary.
Action #10: Know the VAW zeitgeist
Just this year, 130 legal professionals and representatives of victims’ organisations in the UK signed an open letter raising their concerns about the outdated views of family courts on sexual violence. It is crucial for judges to ensure that they are not left behind on being educated and up-to-date about their society’s and the world’s current views on VAW, its perpetrators, and survivors. While social movements such as #MeToo continue to make progress in how communities view and address VAW, judges hold the power and the final responsibility in ensuring that the outcomes of court proceedings reflect the justice the communities they serve demand.
Action #11: Make brochures and information available within the court complex
Requesting that informative brochures be made available in court gives the survivor the perception that the court takes her well-being into consideration. Not only will the survivor be given options to connect with local organisations, this helps create a comfortable environment for the survivor. In the US, the Judicial Branch of the state of Idaho, for example, has a specific website providing information on domestic violence and contact details for local organisations.
Action #12: Minimise additional intimidation factors
Court cases generally focus on a particular fact or a singular incident, but VAW survivors may have been exposed to years of abuse and may have lived under constant control daily. Judges should create an environment in their courtroom that promotes “zero tolerance” of domestic violence. For example, a judge can instruct bailiffs not to permit the litigants, family members, or friends to interact in an intimidating manner in the courtroom or during a court recess. A defendant may sometimes behave in an inappropriate manner or make intimidating comments about the victim during a courtroom recess. Allowing this to happen sends a message of defiance to both the court and victim, and makes it appear that the defendant is immune to the court’s authority.
Action #13: Offer to write an article in the newspaper
A judge’s pen is as powerful outside the courtroom as it is inside. Judges can offer to write articles in newspapers on legal proceedings concerning violence against women, including legal proceedings on protection orders and remedies under the various laws that governs VAW crimes. This can aid in spreading the word on effective remedies available to survivors and encourage and empower them to seek legal redress against their abuser. Reading the opinion of someone seen as well-educated and influential may even change people’s outdated views on VAW, and galvanise communities to push for much needed policy change.
Action #14: Persuade bar associations to provide legal representation to survivors
Survivors may be concerned with the costs of obtaining legal representation, which can sometimes be prohibitive and lead to them not receiving any legal representation. Judges can use their position to persuade bar associations to provide legal representation at a lower cost or pro-bono to domestic violence survivors seeking protection orders. Cooperation between the judiciary and the legal fraternity will ultimately aid in ensuring that a survivor receives the necessary legal representation.
Action #15: Use technology
Judges have wide discretion in ensuring that the legal process runs smoothly. This includes implementing new methods to ensure that survivors are able to testify safely. The global coronavirus pandemic has shown us that court hearings are possible via video link. The same technology can enable the survivor to testify during the legal proceedings without having to see her abuser in person or feel like she is reliving her abuse in front of a room full of strangers. This creates a safe space for the survivor to testify and ensures the legal process is made tolerable for the survivor.
Action #16: Work with community organisations and resources
The court should take a proactive approach in working with community organisations and identifying resources to ensure that survivors are informed of their options and have access to safety planning and support from governmental and non-governmental advocates. Survivors of VAW will certainly feel more comfortable contacting trusted local organisations endorsed by the court.
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