Senate OKs Sullivan bill to promote free lawyers for domestic violence, sexual assault victims

FAIRBANKS—The U.S. Senate passed a bill Wednesday introduced by Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan that would encourage lawyers to provide free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.

It is Sullivan’s first standalone bill to pass the Senate.

If signed into law, the Pro bono Work to Empower and Represent Act would require U.S. attorneys in all 94 judicial districts across the country to hold at least one event every year promoting pro bono legal work on domestic violence and sexual assault cases. The bill also includes a provision requiring U.S. attorneys offices to hold events every few years with Native American or Alaska Native groups in their districts to address those types of crimes.

Co-sponsoring the bill were Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

The bill passed the Senate in a unanimous vote, Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson said.

In a phone interview Thursday, Sullivan said he had championed such pro bono events in Alaska as state attorney general. The bill would mandate that same idea nationwide, he said.

It’s necessary because the demand for affordable or free legal advice for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence far exceeds the supply, Sullivan said.

“One of the best ways you can enable victims to break the cycle of violence, in terms of domestic violence and sexual assault, is to get the victim a lawyer,” Sullivan said. “The goal here is to literally have an army of thousands of lawyers throughout the country that do this, and raise awareness, and help to close the gap between what’s needed in terms of services and what’s currently provided.”

As a requirement in the legislation, each U.S. attorney’s office would have to file a report with the U.S. attorney general about the events and their effectiveness, and, in turn, the attorney general will have to compile further recommendations for Congress.

The bill does not include funding or proposed funding for the events, nor does it require the events geared toward Native Americans and Alaska Natives be held in any particular location, for example in a predominantly Native or rural community.

On those issues, Sullivan said he tried to strike a balance between making the provisions mandatory and leaving flexibility for how to pursue the legislation’s goals.

In Alaska, the effort to promote pro bono legal work was carried out without requests for funding from the state Legislature, Sullivan said.

“This is not a heavy lift in terms of what a U.S. attorney is required to do. I know that from my own personal experience,” Sullivan said. “It was just part of our regular work effort.”

Krista Scully, director of the Alaska Bar Association’s pro bono program, said the many Alaska lawyers doing pro bono work have already been busy putting on similar events, including a clinic on civil law at the recent Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.

Sullivan’s legislation is encouraging, Scully said.

“We always think it’s important to shine a bright light on the needs of domestic violence and sexual assault victims, because we know that the intervention of an attorney really makes a difference. It saves lives,” Scully said.

Scully said she looks forward to working on more such events. Meantime, she said, the association will hold its annual clinics in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 18, to provide free legal advice on civil law questions.

The Fairbanks clinic will be at the Rabinowitz Courthouse, Scully said. There will also be a phone hotline available, she said.

“We know that we have a pretty generous legal community when it comes to pro bono,” Scully said.

By:  Casey Grove
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner