There is a relatively new organization in California that has launched a significant effort to give women the tools to make “Times Up” come alive. FreeFrom provides information intended to help make it possible for low-income women, generally with few resources knowingly available to them, to stand up to their abusers in a most powerful way… by making them pay. Recognizing that in our culture money and influence often walk hand-in-hand, FreeFrom is giving domestic violence survivors the tools of influence they need to fight back and find justice. The organization is providing easy access to descriptions of possible ways to effectively use the legal system to recover the salvation that court-ordered damage awards can bring.
While not widely known or readily available, there exist a number of ways women can pursue and, if proven, recover monetary damages from their abusers. Women have available to them several powerful options that can have a long-lasting impact on their abusers — by hitting those abusers in their bank accounts. The impact of these possible remedies is heightened by the reality that abusers may be forced to pay for the damages and injuries they have inflicted. These actions can be especially powerful when initiated by the very person the abuser assumed to be too weak to stand up and too incapable of being strong. And the effect is amplified if it comes through public legal proceedings, a result that cannot be denied or hidden. Want to fight back? Find a lawyer, use the law, prove your case, and ensure democracy works for those who need it most.
There are a number of ways to accomplish exactly that. FreeForm has created a software tool that explains it all and puts it all within reach. It exemplifies the power of, and the need for, information and education. It doesn’t give advice and it doesn’t provide counsel. Instead, it ensures that being armed with that knowledge will open the doors to strength and retribution, providing salvation along the way, knowing that to fight back in a meaningful and evocative way is available and doable.
The tool, which can be found at www.freefrom.org, describes four ways women can access the judicial system during the most traumatic of moments. If successful, these compensation possibilities lead to the hard-won payment of damages and the even harder won sense of satisfaction that comes from making an abuser face direct justice.
The first available avenue is through the process of criminal restitution. At the sentencing stage of a criminal prosecution for assault/abuse, a court can require the guilty to compensate the accuser for financial losses incurred as a result of the criminal attack. The restitution is requested by the prosecutor in the case, in effect making the state the vehicle by which an abused woman is protected and compensated. In the end, if a court determines it to be appropriate, the abuser has to pay the court-ordered sums directly to the abused. Of course, this requires a criminal case be launched and a judgment entered. It demands that the abused testify, but in the hands of the right prosecutor there is no need for the violated woman to find an attorney, and there are no financial costs necessary to pursue the types of damages that may be available.
The second avenue of compensation is through the Victims of Crime Act. This is a federal statute that allows the victim of a crime to seek, potentially, as much as $70,000 in out-of-pocket losses as well as emotional injuries. Compensation is sought through an application process directly to the State which administers the federally-funded VOCA program. A key component of this avenue is that there is no need for the abused woman to see and confront her abuser.
Finally, there is the civil justice court system. In California, it is quite easy to file a case in Small Claims Court. No attorneys are permitted, trials happen quickly, access is not difficult, filing fees are low, and in some jurisdictions there are clinics to help people file and prosecute their cases. Damages of up to $10,000 can be awarded by the court. Evidence has to be presented and the applicable standards of proof must be met. Of course, without attorneys on either side, the atmosphere is less formal and less intimidating. Note, however, that the abused must be in the courtroom with her abuser, in close proximity, without the protection of a lawyer, often dependent on friends, family, and the court bailiff for a buffer to make her feel protected.
Finally, the most potentially powerful remedy is found in the filing and prosecution of a civil suit for damages brought in the superior court. It can result in a blow to the abuser that is expensive and public, resulting in a verdict from which he cannot easily escape. However, a sophisticated tort action is also a most difficult path to navigate. Filing a civil case in superior court seeking damages from the abuser is a vital tool that can result in the most significant deterrent and compensatory result available. Damage potential is limited only by the evidence and if the evidence merits it then awards can be substantial. Additionally, a superior court judgment, once rendered, is indelible. It will not go away, it will follow the abuser until the judgment is paid, and the fact of its existence will live on far beyond the life of the court proceeding. However, the civil justice system is complex, overwhelming, and intimidating. Without an attorney, it is a morass of virtually unnavigable rules, procedures, judges, clerks, laws, pleadings, motions, deadlines, costs, time, and difficulties. It can be a harrowing experience. Depositions of abused women can be lengthy, difficult and taxing. The civil trial process is long and pre-trial discovery can be emotionally costly. But in the end, for some, this may be the best forum in which to say that, indeed, time is up, that “you cannot push me around, I will fight back, I will exact justice.”
FreeFrom lays out these possibilities in its online tool, describing the advantages and disadvantages in an easy to understand, well-presented format. In barely its first 48 hours online, the site earned more than 25,000 hits, providing women with information about how the justice system offers a chance at redemption and the pride that comes from standing tall and fighting back, legally, fairly and successfully.
Imagine the woman who has been beaten by her partner, her children hearing the screams from the next room, desperately afraid, heading to an emergency room visit. Instead of feeling helpless, she can find a legal aid attorney to assist her in securing a restraining order against her attacker. She can then take the next step and affirmatively find salvation and redemption when her abusive partner is jailed and later is ordered to pay her compensation for the horribly inflicted damage she was forced to endure. If the merits of her cases so warrant, it is a tool that marks its power in its stature and in its message. It is empowering and it is just. And it has now become more understandable, and therefore more available, than ever before.
David A. Lash is the managing counsel for pro bono and public interest services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. The opinions expressed are his alone. The information in this article does not constitute the provision of legal advice but rather is general information related to compensatory possibilities for victims of domestic violence. Anyone interested in pursuing any such possibility is urged to consult a qualified attorney regarding her/his particular legal issue or dispute.