Bar News - May 13, 2011
Putting the Pieces Together: DOVE Training Teaches Volunteers about Domestic Abuse
By: Beverly Rorick
The NHBA Domestic Violence and Emergency Project (DOVE Project) sponsored a recent full-day training for new lawyers that taught them everything they need to know about handling the domestic violence cases that the DOVE Project coordinates. The morning session taught students specialized techniques for interviewing victims of domestic violence and the afternoon mock-trial session showed students how cases normally play out.
Mary Krueger (standing), NHLA, Claremont, discusses interviewing techniques with Bar members who attended the DOVE training on April 15 at the Bar Center.
Mary Krueger from NH Legal Assistance (NHLA) and Eric Sommers, of the Sommers Law Office in Portsmouth, assisted by Kathy Jones from A Safe Place crisis center, gave tips on interviewing.
"Itís important to develop rapport with your client early," said Sommers. "You need to establish a credible story." He went on to say that often a client will be intimidated upon arriving in court because the opposing party may be present Ė and that person may be someone who has terrorized the client in the past.
"However difficult it may be, the client should be the one to tell you the story, though," said Krueger. "Even if accompanied to the first interview by a family member or friend, the client should speak because in court the client will have to tell the story."
"Itís important for the client to feel comfortable with you," continued Sommers. "Let the client tell you the story with minimum interruptions. You can explore the details afterward. I also suggest that you meet in a comfortable place, maybe the crisis center, rather than your law office or somewhere else that may seem cold and forbidding to the client." Sommers said it may be a good thing if the client does not necessarily see the attorney as an authority figure at first.
If there is a language problem and the client needs an interpreter, one will be provided by the court. In the initial interview, itís okay to let a family member or friend interpret. "Be sure to ask questions about the family situation in general," said Sommers, "such as, whether there are children, whether rent needs to be paid, etc."
"Use your active listening skills," Krueger advised. "Keep track mentally of what to ask later Ė you can jot down a quick note, but try not to interrupt. After the interview, you can go over the petition and ask for details.
"Itís important to know what the opposing counsel may be going to use against your client," Sommers continued. "Is there a drinking problem? Does she have a history of abuse herself? Donít avoid the negatives, but try to put them in context."
"Let your client know you believe what sheís saying," said Krueger. "So many people probably havenít." But do press the client on the "bad" facts; theyíre sure to surface in court.
Sommers told the group to spend some time calming the clientís anxiety Ė and on telling the client exactly whatís going to happen in court. "Sometimes I have drawn a diagram of the courtroom Ė or on occasion, even taken the client to the court if itís convenient," he said.
"Itís O.K. for the client to be emotional on the stand," said Krueger, "but the client should try not to be angry or aggressive. In this respect, the crisis center advocate can often help a client prepare to tell the story.
"What if your client doesnít show up?" asked an attendee.
That may happen, agreed both Krueger and Sommers, especially if the client is afraid of the abuser. "Try not to be judgmental if your client backs out Ė the client may actually follow through sometime in the future."
Kathy Jones (crisis center) said that chronologies are hard to establish with traumatized persons. "You may be able to test the timeline, however, by asking the right questions," she said.
"But not having things in the exact order will not necessarily go against the client," said Sommers. "The judge will understand, especially in domestic violence cases."
Mock TrialThe mock trial, which took place in the afternoon, involved the case of "Susie Q." and "Johnnie B." After an altercation, sparked by Johnnieís suspicion that Susie was sleeping with his brother Billie, Susie called the police (she had been knocked down and threatened by Johnnie) and filed a restraining order. However, after reconciling with Johnnie, she wrote a letter to the court saying she had lied in order to get Johnnie out of the apartment. The court did not act on the letter because of the physical evidence of abuse; the case went to trial.
After a breakout session during which the participants had a chance to review the case (half of the audience to support the plaintiff and the other half, the defendant), the group did some role-playing. With a preliminary hearing as the setting, several of the attendees "appeared" in court.
The Hon. Marital Master Jennifer Lemire (Manchester Family Division) presided, and while there were many humorous moments for the "actors," they were vividly reminded that human lives are deeply affected by effective (or ineffective!) representation in domestic violence cases. The group was impressed with the importance of being carefully prepared and conscientious in all details before going to court.
The program is available on DVD for those interested in becoming DOVE volunteers. Contact DOVE Coordinator Pam Dodge.