Ask for your client when you call and speak only to your client about the case. Do not leave messages with other family members or on an answering machine or voice-mail until your client has told you this is safe. If questioned by family members, do not indicate that you are a lawyer; rather, give an innocuous reason for the call, such as taking a survey.
Always ask your client first if it is safe to talk and whether you should call the police. The abuser may be present, even if the abuser no longer lives in the same home. Develop a system of coded messages to signal danger or the abuser’s presence.
Block identification of your number when calling your client by dialing *67 or the equivalent in your area. This prevents a abuser from using “caller ID” to discover that your client is seeking legal assistance.
Keep your client’s whereabouts confidential. Do not disclose your client’s addresses, telephone numbers, or information about the children without your client’s permission, including during discovery. Abusers often track down their former partners through third parties, such as court personnel or social service providers.
Send mail to your client only when your client has advised you that it is safe. If a new client fails to attend appointments or return your calls, write your client a simple letter requesting a response without disclosing your identity as a lawyer (do not use letterhead).
Remind your client to have an explanation for legal appointments and to limit the children’s knowledge to prevent the abuser from finding out about legal actions or an upcoming separation ahead of time.
Inform your client of legal developments in advance, particularly when a abuser is about to be served or when a hearing is approaching, so that your client may take extra safety precautions.
If your client fails to respond to your calls, make extensive (but confidential) efforts to confirm that your client is safe. If your client has decided to drop the case, try to verify that your client has not been threatened or coerced.
Develop a referral list including the National Domestic Violence Hotline [(800) 799-SAFE or (800) 787-3224 for hearing impaired service], local shelters, relationship abuse programs, certified batterers’ intervention programs, and children’s programs. Make referrals to clients and give them copies of the referral list if they have safe places to keep the copies. Allow clients to use your phone if necessary or initiate calls at your client’s request.
Advise your client to take the following steps if the abuser becomes violent or threatening:
- Call the police at 911 (or the local police emergency number) and ask for the dispatcher’s name. When the police respond, obtain the officer’s name and badge number. Your lawyer can use this information to follow up, locate a police report, or subpoena a witness.
- File criminal charges if the abuser commits a crime or violates a protection order. Filing criminal charges and following through is one of the most effective ways to deter future violence.
- Seek medical treatment if injured by the abuser. Photograph all injuries.
- Record all contact with the abuser in a diary.
Arrive in court before your client so that your client is not alone with the abuser. If this is impossible, advise your client to wait near a security guard or a bailiff. Be aware that abusers often physically assault, repeatedly harass, or emotionally coerce victims in court.
Sit at a physical distance from the abuser when you talk to your client or wait for the case to be called. Always position yourself between the abuser and your client. Abusers control and threaten their former victims simply by using body language.
Do not permit the abuser to speak to your client. Even if you are present, you may be unaware that the abuser is threatening your client. Discuss any settlement negotiations with the abuser (or the abuser’s lawyer if represented by counsel) and then report back to your client.
Take the same precautions with the abuser’s family members. In relationship abuse cases, it is not uncommon for the abuser’s family members to physically assault or verbally abuse the victim in court. Safeguard children if the abuser or family members insist on holding them.
Make certain that your client is safe when exiting the courthouse. Abusers often stalk victims to discover where they live, or to punish victims for taking legal action.
Assess the abuser’s lethality. Your client has an increased risk of being severely assaulted or killed by the abuser if the abuser possesses weapons, abuses drugs or alcohol, stalks your client, or has threatened homicide or suicide.
Advise your client to stay at a shelter, or with friends or relatives, if your client fears that the abuser will assault or kill them. If your client has children, make certain that you have examined existing court orders and statutes to determine how flight may affect a custody case.
Under certain circumstances, it may be necessary for a client to disappear completely. Assist your client to change names and social security numbers if necessary.
Be aware of your safety. Most abusers seek to control their former or current partners, rather than their lawyers, and many abusers appear to be well-behaved in court. Nevertheless, some lawyers representing survivors of relationship abuse have been threatened by abusers or their family members. Take precautions if a problem arises.
Adapted from Deborah Goelman, Safety Planning, in THE IMPACT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ON YOUR LEGAL PRACTICE: A LAWYER’S HANDBOOK (ABA, Goelman et al. eds., 1996)