Sullivan, Harris Introduce Legislation to Expand Legal Representation for Victims of Violence

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) have introduced S. 1959, the Ensuring Representation for Survivors Act, legislation that works to ensure that all survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault have access to a lawyer if they need it. Studies have shown that when abused victims are represented by an attorney, their ability to break out of the cycle of violence increases dramatically. 

“Thousands of victims each year—whether due to income, lack of access, lack of resources, or other challenges—find themselves without legal aid or support in navigating the complexities of our criminal justice system or various other legal issues after being victimized. Sadly, many go without legal assistance as a result,” said Senator Sullivan. “Meanwhile, a perpetrator enjoys a Sixth Amendment right to counsel. There’s an imbalance and an injustice here that needs to be addressed. We know that one of the best ways to help a survivor escape the cycle of violence is to get them a lawyer. Our legislation will bolster and expand existing federal resources to reach the unmet legal needs of survivors. I appreciate Senator Harris joining me in advocating for survivors across our country." 

“Let’s be absolutely clear: domestic violence and sexual assault are real issues in America. We must do more to support survivors, including expanding the Legal Assistance for Victims program,” said Senator Harris. “As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen time and time again the difference it makes when a survivor has an advocate by his or her side to navigate the complex legal process. I’m proud to work on this bipartisan legislation with Senator Sullivan to ensure legal assistance for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, especially for those who cannot afford legal representation.”

“Survivors of domestic violence need legal assistance to ensure that they obtain the safety and justice they need to protect themselves and their children,” said Ruth Glenn, CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Yet most survivors can’t afford private legal representation, and funding for free legal assistance is so limited. This bill will help provide those critically needed legal services, so survivors and their children can be safe and secure.”

“The evidence is compelling – providing civil legal assistance to survivors is one of the most effective means of helping survivors leave a violent relationship,” said Carmen Lowry, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “Despite this clear impact, too many survivors are unable to access the legal representation needed to help them create safer lives due to limited legal advocacy resources, limited number of trained attorneys to provide pro-bono work, and the sheer number of survivors who are seeking justice through the legal system. Senator Sullivan’s bill would allow us to provide more survivors with the critical representation they need and deserve.”  

“It’s hard to overstate how important it is for survivors of domestic and sexual violence to have someone fighting for them as they try to get their lives back after an assault or years of abuse,” said Esta Soler, president and founder of Futures Without Violence. “It can mean the difference between having a place to live and custody of your children and homelessness or hunger. Having representation matters. Thank you Senators Harris and Sullivan for helping victims of crime survive and thrive.”  

The Ensuring Representation for Survivors Act expands and improves the Legal Assistance for Victims grant program, managed by the Office of Violence Against Women. Specifically, the bill:

  • Increases the authorized amount of the grant program to $80 million. 
  • Allows states to receive and distribute a designated percentage of total grant funding to implement, expand, and establish advocacy efforts, including through pro bono representation. The legal support provided can include asserting a victim’s rights in a criminal proceeding, obtaining a protective order, and support in related civil proceedings, like divorce, custody, housing or health care. 

A number of national and state organizations have endorsed the legislation, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, and Futures Without Violence (California).

Additional Facts:

  • According to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 25 percent of women suffer from domestic violence during their lifetime.
  • According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which conducted a census including nearly 1,700 assistance programs, over the course of one day in September 2014, more than 10,000 requests for services, including legal representation, were not met.
  • Legal representation increases the possibility of successfully obtaining a protective order against an attacker, preventing further mental and physical injury to a victim and his or her family, demonstrated by a study that found that 83 percent of victims represented by an attorney were able to obtain a protective order compared to 32 percent of victims without an attorney. 
  • Ninety-seven percent of low-income households with survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault experienced a civil legal problem in the past year (in addition to problems related to DV/SA), including 67 percent that have experienced 6+ problems. 
  • Common legal needs for these households include finance, health, employment, housing, and family proceedings.
  • Low-income survivors seek professional legal help for 23 percent of their civil legal problems, receiving inadequate or no professional legal help for an estimated 86 percent of all their problems.