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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.

File an appeal

back to topHow the appeal process works

You might be able to file an appeal of the judge’s decision. An appeal is when you ask a higher court to review a decision by a judge in a lower court. The higher court (usually called a court of appeals or supreme court) looks at the record of the trial court and decides if the judge made any mistakes of law.  You cannot introduce new evidence when you appeal your case to a higher court. The higher court only looks at what was said and done in the trial court.

Usually, you only have a short time to file an appeal once an order is issued.  The time limit may be different depending on what state you live in.  For basic information on appeals, go to our Filing Appeals page.  You may want to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible about the time limit in your state so that you do not lose your chance to appeal.  Go to Finding a Lawyer to find legal help in your state.

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Reach out for help

back to topOrganizations to contact

Contact a local domestic violence organization. They have no doubt come across similar situations before and can help you think through your situation and possibly develop a plan to obtain a better legal arrangement.  They can also provide you with emotional support and counseling. To find a domestic violence organization in your area please click here:  State and Local Programs.

You can also contact the State Coalition Against Domestic Violence in your state. The State Coalitions Against Domestic Violence work to impact public policy and legislation which affect battered women.  If you have had any problems with a judge or a lawyer, someone at the Coalition may able to help you or at least channel you in the right direction on how to approach these issues. 

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back to topFor battered women who lost custody

If the abuser gets custody of your children or if there is a real threat that the abuser will get custody of your kids, you may want to check out the Battered Mothers Custody Conference website at http://www.batteredmotherscustodyconference.org. The Conference includes presentations, round-table discussions, and question answer sessions with nationally distinguished professionals whose work is focused on resolving the complex issues facing battered women as they struggle to protect themselves and their children in and out of court during custody and visitation disputes.

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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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Educate yourself

back to topIdeas for representing yourself

There are other ways in which you can help yourself, if you do not find help from a lawyer or an advocate in a domestic violence organization. Here are some ideas on how to proceed:

  • Go to a law library at the courthouse. Many courthouses have libraries, which will have case law, statutes and secondary source materials. Materials can be provided in print as well as online formats. You may want to ask the clerk of the civil court if there is a library at your county court and if there is someone there that can help you find the information you are looking for.
  • See if your courthouse has an office for the self-represented. These offices are designed to provide information and forms for people who are representing themselves in court. The information is intended to help you to help yourself through the court system. Sometimes there will be attorneys on staff to provide basic legal information. If you do not understand any of the information, or if you have trouble filling out any of the forms located there, you may want to consider seeing an attorney or an advocate at a domestic violence organization for help. Please, click Where to Find Help and select your state.
  • Go online. Nolo.com http://www.nolo.com/ provides you with free legal information, law forms and do-it your-self legal kits and books for several types of legal cases. The legal kits and books teach you how to prepare your case and how to argue your case in court. Also on the Nolo.com website, you can search for a lawyer by legal issue or by state. (WomensLaw.org does not endorse the services of Nolo.com – we provide this information for your knowledge only).
  • Sometimes legal aid organizations are very busy with other cases and they are forced to turn you down. Even if they say that they cannot represent you, consider asking them for consultation or for help in filling out court forms.

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