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Partner Spotlight: Pro Bono Court Representation for Survivors

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Learn how attorneys from local law firms are using their legal training to fill a gap in representation for survivors petitioning for Orders of Protection.


Navigating violence can be complicated and dangerous for survivors, and appearing in court can add a layer of intimidation for those who engage with the legal system, either by choice or for reasons related to their victimization. Something The Friendship Center’s clients can pursue as part of their safety planning is an Order of Protection (OOP for short, also sometimes referred to as a restraining order). An OOP is a court order designed to protect survivors from violent or harassing behavior by a partner, family member, or somebody else who has committed a violent crime against them (i.e., stalking, rape, sexual assault).


Part of the process for obtaining an OOP involves a court hearing where the person applying for the order (the petitioner) must prove to a judge that they are the victim of a violent crime committed by the person the OOP is filed against (the respondent), or that they are scared of being physically harmed by them. The exact order of events for the hearing may depend on whether both the petitioner and respondent attend, whether either party shows up with a lawyer, and whether the respondent agrees or disagrees with the order filed against them.


A petitioner can technically represent themselves in an OOP hearing, and there are some excellent resources about the process available online like the Montana Law Help FAQ maintained by Montana Legal Services Association. TFC advocates can also be a supportive presence and sit with clients in court whether they’re representing themselves or not. While not required, there are advantages to having an attorney present to possibly help a survivor’s case and make the hearing process more efficient and thorough for courts. Many of our clients, however, are not in a position to hire a lawyer. This is where attorneys who are willing to work pro bono can have a meaningful impact with a relatively low time commitment.


Attorneys from several local law firms are stepping up and using their legal training to fill the gap in representation for survivors who petition for OOPs. To learn more about how attorneys can volunteer their time and knowledge of courtroom protocol to support survivors, we invited local attorney Mike Talia to respond to a short Q&A. Mike shares how he learned about this need, why he wanted to get involved, and how a growing number of his colleagues are lending their support in this important way.


To start, can you share a bit about your own background and where along the way you became aware of The Friendship Center or a similar agency’s work?


MT: My first exposure to this type of work was when I was in college, through a friend who worked as an advocate for a similar organization where I grew up. She opened my eyes to a lot of misconceptions about domestic violence and sexual assault that are common among the public at large. A decade later, when I was working as a military lawyer with the Montana National Guard, Congress gave victims additional rights in military criminal and adverse administrative actions, including a government provided military lawyer. I was able to attend the Army’s second Special Victims' Counsel course. I never served in that role myself, but I interacted with many survivors and their counsel in my capacity as a government lawyer.


What made you want to get more involved in supporting survivors in our community?


MT: The Friendship Center’s annual Hope Benefit Luncheon is an inspiring event. After last year’s, I asked my law partner (and TFC board member) Hanna Warhank if anyone was doing pro bono work to help survivors navigate the legal system, similar to the military’s Special Victims' Counsel program. Hanna recalled that something similar may have existed in the past, but no longer. That was it. I wanted to find a way to do more pro bono work, but not in the most common area, which is domestic relations and divorce. Hanna put me in touch with Gina (TFC’s Executive Director) and after a few months we got the program off and running.


In a similar vein, how much did you know about the Order of Protection process in Montana before engaging with The Friendship Center? When did you see this as a space where you could contribute?


MT: I had never worked on an Order of Protection before, ever, until my first case through The Friendship Center. When I first thought about how to help, I was thinking more of advising survivors about their rights as crime victims. But after sitting down with Gina and Sarah (TFC’s Client Services Manager) to talk about what needs exist, it became obvious that court representation for survivors was a gap that needed to be filled.


What I like about this work, for me and for our other volunteers, is that while the cases come fast, they resolve quickly too. Lawyers can be busy and confined by their calendars, which tend to be oversubscribed. It’s easier to get pro bono volunteers when they know they are not signing up for a years-long dispute.


Even though OOP petitioners can represent themselves at their hearing, why do you think it’s important that they have the option to not have to appear before a judge alone?


MT: The legal system is intimidating. Courtrooms can be intimidating too. If the respondent has an attorney, the petitioner might not know how to get their evidence admitted for the court’s consideration. Rules are important in court, and not knowing the rules can hurt a person’s case in a way that they do not even understand—especially with the rules of evidence. There is a certain way to offer facts to a judge, to ensure the facts are reliable. There are also some things that are not usually allowed to be discussed, like prior sexual activity, which can come up in these cases. Even some lawyers struggle with the rules of evidence. It is not realistic to expect a person without legal training to present their case in compliance with the rules, which puts additional work on our judges, who have to ensure that courtroom procedures and evidentiary rules are followed to be sure both parties’ rights are respected. Our courts are incredibly busy and under-resourced. It’s helpful to judges, court staff, and the legal system as a whole if our judges can move through cases more efficiently. With at least one lawyer involved at a hearing, judges should have less work to do and be able to move along more quickly. A better record can be made also, which makes the job easier for other courts which may have to review the Order of Protection proceedings.


You were one of the first to express interest in representing some of our clients who would otherwise be representing themselves at their OOP hearings. How did a bigger group of attorneys start to become interested in this as well?


MT: I have learned that I was not the only person with this idea, but I guess I got the proverbial rock kicked down the hill. The initial group of volunteers was a few lawyers at my firm. To spread the load out, I made a few more asks to people I thought would want to help and got enthusiastic responses. Other volunteers have since come on board after hearing about the opportunity. We have attorneys at several local firms involved and, thanks to support from the Montana Legal Services Association, we also have several government and nonprofit lawyer volunteers too.


For other attorneys in our community who might be interested in doing more to support survivors, how would you recommend they get more involved? Is this a pretty easy way to get started in your opinion, or can this type of pro bono work be intimidating to folks who specialize in different areas of law?


MT: Some lawyers, especially those without a lot of courtroom experience, say this is intimidating, but it does not have to be. Imagine how a survivor feels walking into court alone. Anyone with a law license is going to add value to the situation.


 

If you’re an attorney with an interest in pro bono opportunities to represent survivors in our community at Order of Protection hearings, you can email Mike Talia to learn more and get involved.


The Friendship Center is just one of many organizations in our community working to ensure everyone is supported with care and dignity. Each month, we highlight some of the fantastic people and organizations we partner and collaborate with in our email newsletter. Sign up to make sure you don't miss a partner spotlight and learn more about some of the services available in our community.

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