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Know the Laws:

UPDATED March 26, 2010

When the Legal System Fails You

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Nothing can be more frustrating than when you feel that the judge or lawyer on your case is not performing their work properly. Sometimes you feel that the judge or lawyer isn’t paying enough attention to your case or is not considering domestic violence as a critical issue when deciding a protection order, custody or divorce case. It can also be frustrating when you cannot afford a lawyer but your local legal services organization has turned you down. Here are some ideas/ options to consider when you feel “the system” (judges and lawyers) has failed you.

Ways to get a new lawyer or work with the one you have

back to topWorking with the lawyer you have

If you have problems with your lawyer or you think your lawyer is not representing you well, talk to your lawyer.  It is usually best to discuss your concerns with the attorney, ask for specific things that you want from him/her, and give the attorney a chance to correct his/her actions.  If that doesn't work, here are a few other ideas:

  • If your lawyer works for an organization (such as Legal Aid) or a law firm, talk to the lawyer's supervisor and work your way up the ranks to the director or head lawyer until you get the results that you want. If it doesn't help, and you still feel that you are not getting good representation, you can always ask if a different lawyer from the organization or law firm can take over the case.
  • If your lawyer has been appointed by the court, you may want to ask the judge to appoint some else.  Keeping notes about the problems you are having with the attorney could help make your case for a new lawyer (for example, if s/he isn’t returning your phone messages, keep a list of when you called and what message you left).  You do have the right to fire a court-appointed attorney even if you are not paying him – however, think carefully BEFORE you do this because the judge might not appoint a second attorney for you.  If you can't find a lawyer on your own, you will be left to represent yourself, which could be VERY difficult, especially if the abuser has a lawyer.  
  • You may want to make a complaint to the State Bar Association, which regulates attorneys in that state. Attorneys have a code of ethics and a code of conduct that they must follow – the Bar Association handles complaints about attorneys who violate these codes. However, investigations often take a long time and any punishment that may be handed down to the attorney will not specifically affect your case.

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back to topGetting a new lawyer

If you cannot afford a lawyer, but cannot get free legal services, you might be able to ask the judge to order the other party (husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, etc) to pay for your lawyer’s legal fees. Depending on the type of case and the state you live in, sometimes judges evaluate your financial situation as well as the other party’s financial situation and can order the other person to pay for any legal fee or cost involved in the legal process.  When looking for a private lawyer, you can ask if s/he would be willing to make this request on your behalf in court.  If it is a divorce case where you expect to be getting a large sum of money in a divorce settlement, perhaps the lawyer may delay getting paid until the case is complete or work out a payment plan.  For certain cases, such as a personal injury case or an employment discrimination case, you may likely be able to find a lawyer who will take your case for a contingency fee -- where the lawyer will get a percentage of the money from your winnings in the case.

You may also want to contact any law schools in your area because sometimes they have legal clinics and can take cases for free. In these clinics, law school students provide assistance and representation under the supervision of their professors.

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