Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Justice Is Blind to Domestic Violence

I spent most of today in court waiting for the Judge to call my client's case so that we could get on with her efforts to divorce her husband. The husband is a scary looking man who physically, verbally, sexually, and financially abused my client during the eight years in which they were married and living together. Whenever we go to court, the husband throws me nasty death stares across the courtroom. Sometimes it makes me a little afraid, although I would never share that with my client. I always tell her that we have nothing to worry about, and remind her about the presence of the court security guards and the metal detectors that everyone has to pass through to enter the building.

I know from my client that her husband has "traditional" (read "sexist") beliefs about gender roles. The husband believes that women should be servants to their husbands, that they should stay at home and cook and clean, that they should have a curfew, and that they should be beat and hurt if they refuse to comply with the demands of their husbands. Based on his actions, the husband also believes that women should be told that they are "worthless" and accused of being "adulterous whores" when they express a desire to work outside of the home, and that they should be prevented from having any control of the couple's financial resources. He's a real piece of work.

I'm sure the husband despises me. I'm a woman working outside of the home. As a lawyer I am in a position of power and he no doubt suspects that I'm making a boat-load of cash. Perhaps he thinks I'm a whore based on those crimes alone. In addition, I'm representing his wife and trying to help her put this man and everything he's done to her in her past, while at the same time trying to force him to give her a fair financial shake. I'm conscious of how much he must loath me every time I catch his eye in the courtroom and everytime I have to speak to him (he's representing himself pro se so I do not have the luxury of dealing with opposing counsel).

I'm also conscious of the fact that the last time he was alone with his wife, he held her hostage at gunpoint and nearly strangled her. In court, I find myself keeping half an eye on the husband throughout the proceedings to make sure he doesn't suddenly whip out a weapon and go postal in the courtroom. Sometimes I imagine ducking under the desk and saving only myself. Other, more valiant times, I imagine grabbing my client and pushing us both behind the wooden railings of the jury box. We've had 7 court appearances, each time escorted by armed security officers, and so far everyone has come out intact.

The awareness of risk that I feel is nothing compared with the terror and anxiety that my client experiences each time she has to face her abuser in the courtroom. Her fear is also not limited, as mine is, to the dates of our court appearances. My client is afraid each and every minute of the day that where ever she is and whatever she's doing, her husband could find her and kill her. I cannot imagine what that must feel like to live with that terror each and every minute of the day. I cannot imagine that level of stress.

After each hearing, I always end up feeling that our judicial system is inadequate and unjust. My client has a restraining order out against her husband, and she had one in place during the last time that he attacked her. It didn't stop him then, and there's no guarantee that it would stop him now. He was charged with assault for attacking my client, but he pleaded it down to harassment and as a result only had to go to some anger management classes. He never had to serve any jail time for doing something that had he done it to me, or anyone else other than his wife, he would have been locked up... at least for a little while.

My client wants someone to listen to her story, to believe that the abuse she says she experienced actually happened. However, the Court only wants to hear concrete details about dollars and cents. The Court wants things to add up nicely to a quantifiable pot of cash that he can then split in half between my client and her husband before he pronounces them ex and ex. Under the law violence is not a factor that is taken into account in splitting up the marital assets, so there's no incentive for the Court to waste precious judicial resources hearing the details of a story that doesn't matter in the final analysis. I can understand why the Court doesn't want to hear he-said-she-said stories about the past that are inconsequential under the law (apart from establishing fault), and wants to focus on identifying and dividing up the marial assets.

I can understand it, but it just doesn't seem right because my client's story should matter. It should make a difference to her divorce settlement that her husband abused her. She should get something for enduring her husband's abuse, and he should be made to pay at least a little bit for all the pain that he caused my her. But unfortunately, that's not the way the law works. In the end, my client is going to get her divorce, and she's going to get (hopefully) at least half of the marital assets, but she will get absolutely nothing to compensate her for the harm that her husband inflicted upon her for the last 8 years of her life. That's just not the way our judicial system works.

4 comments:

pas said...

This is a hard story to stomach -- I so want to believe that your power to help her will ensure that the right thing will happen. But there is so much wrong with this picture ... so much work to do in the legal system. Your post is a good reminder of this.

And I shudder to imagine how much worse it could be if your client didn't have stellar legal representation!

Prue said...

That guy deserves to spend time in prison where he would hopefully get to experience firsthand what it is like to be a slave to some enormous, filthy neanderthal with one helluva temper.

Buttercup said...

Pas,

I became involved in the case after my client had attempted to seek spousal support and was turned away in Family Court because she still lived with her husband.

During that first hearing she was not represented by counsel. The Family Court judge did not allow her to speak, and did not hear any evidence about the husband's abuse. My client (on her own) wrote out objections to the Family Court Judge's order denying her spousal support in which she detailed the abuse she had been forced to experience the past 8 years. Thankfully, another Judge read her objections and overruled the first Family Court Judge's ruling.

By the time of her re-hearing on her spousal support matter, I had taken her on as a pro bono client, so at her next hearing she was represented by counsel. In that hearing we were able to get her a small about of spousal support. It clearly made big difference that she had representation.

The reality for so many women who desperately need assistance is that they are unable to find counsel and have to go up against their abusers in Court completely on their own. I do not know how they do it, but they must have an immense about of strength. It's amazing to me.

Bean said...

Well, take good care of her...though the judicial system is screwed up and not real justice...I am sure she is appreciative that you listen and hear her story. You are a strong woman, so i am sure she may retain some good aspects of you and move on with her life once the divorce is final.