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A case that changed my perspective

By Chris Beck

Christopher BeckI was working at the Ventura County Legal Aid clinic where we provide legal advice to local litigants. I pulled a case and met with a new participant. We sat at a desk in the Ventura County Law Library and had a dialogue that changed my perspective in seconds.

The woman told me she has a child, and now the grandparents from dad's side wanted to take custody. Naturally, I asked why the dad was out of the picture. She said rather plainly that he was in jail. I asked why, and she shuddered. She seemed incredibly uneasy with the question. I could tell right away that I wasn't going to get a normal response, that she was going to tell me something earth shattering ... and she did. She said dad was not in the picture because he tried to kill her – the client – and unfortunately for her, he tried to do it in the most heinous way possible. He had kidnapped her, stabbed her multiple times and then left her for dead when she dove from the car to save her own life. She recovered in a local hospital, and now her abuser was continuing to assert control over her by proxy: through his parents.

I was stunned, shocked, dismayed. I'd need a thesaurus and Stephen King’s writing skills to describe the horror of what this poor person went through. I sat, stoically, not knowing what to say. I said the only plausible thing: I was going to take her case as direct representation. She needed it. This person had been victimized beyond anything I had ever encountered in all of my years in legal practice, all the way back to when I was 17 and working as a legal assistant at a family law office. This person needed help. The trial was to be heard on a Friday, and by the nature of my work and availability, I was able to be there that day.

I'm partially jaded when it comes to abuse victims. I started work in law at age 17 with the Lancaster, Calif. law offices of David Jefferies, a renowned advocate for domestic violence victims. I recall him pulling a newspaper from his bookshelf whenever he encountered a victim who was hesitant to request a restraining order. The article on the front page was of a woman who was murdered at a Lancaster park by a former partner who had abused her. She either didn't want the restraining order or she was recalcitrant at the hearing on the restraining order (I'm not sure which, it's been a good while.). Regardless, she didn't have the protection, and very unfortunately, she paid with her life.

My client wasn't in that position. Her abuser was in jail. Nevertheless, the strings of abuse were extended by her husband through his parents. Mind you, the parents may have had the best of intentions in seeking custodial time with their grandchild, but nothing alleviates the trauma of constantly forcing an abuse victim to visit her abuser’s home, his parents and the memories of the horror he caused.

It's been over 50 years since Gideon v. Wainright created mandatory representation in criminal matters. Part of the reasoning of the court included due process concerns and what a legally inarticulate person stood to lose in the face of zealous representation. In criminal courts, a person risks their freedom and so the right to counsel rightfully attaches. But what about losing your child? Even though some parents would put that above their own freedom, no right to counsel is afforded. Even worse, there are limited to no legal services in many areas to protect these parties. This injustice is compounded when the unrepresented party is also the victim of domestic violence.

The need for volunteers – attorneys that have time, can find or will make time to help these people – is enormous. The legal clinic the Ventura County Bar Association now offers is fantastic. But it doesn't satisfy the needs of those who need direct representation. I would implore all attorneys to look at the gift we've been given in the ability to practice law as a call to help those who need our gift the most. There is no civil Gideon and there isn't one on the horizon. Without more volunteers the prevalence of injustice by a lack of representation will perpetuate like a plague, and the consequences will be dire.

Christopher Beck is general counsel for the Housing Authority of the City of San Buenaventura and counsel for the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara. This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Citations (Ventura County Bar Journal). It is reprinted here with permission.