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Sen. Biden Introduces Legislation to Recruit Volunteer Lawyers to Represent Victims of Domestic Violence

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Location: Washington, DC

The National Domestic Violence Volunteer Attorney Network Act would recruit and match volunteer lawyers to needy victims

U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE) introduced the National Domestic Violence Volunteer Attorney Network Act today, legislation that for the first time creates a national system to recruit and train volunteer lawyers and match them with domestic violence victims. Under the proposed bill, the electronic National Domestic Violence Attorney Network would be coordinated by the American Bar Association; statewide legal coordinators would manage legal services in their individual states and the National Domestic Violence; and Internet-based services would provide legal referral.

"This innovative bill builds on the best of American ideals - volunteerism, technology know-how, collaboration between the private and public sectors and our unwavering commitment to justice for all," said Senator Biden. "I know that across the country there are lawyers who want to serve their community and this bill will pave the way.

According to government reports, one in every four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime and one in every six women will suffer from an attempted or completed rape. But experts say we can dramatically reduce these numbers by providing victims of domestic violence with meaningful access to the justice system.

"When victims can obtain effective protection orders, initiate separation proceedings and can rely on safe child custody hearings, they are more likely to come out of the shadows. Yet thousands of victims of domestic violence go without legal representation every day in this country and less than 1 out of every 5 low-income victims ever sees a lawyer. We can't allow this to continue," added Senator Biden.

Sheryl Cates, Executive Director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline said of the legislation: "For the thousands of women who contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline every day, this Domestic Violence Attorney bill will ensure access to the critical legal services they so desperately need for safety and to rebuild their lives."

American Bar Association President, Karen J. Mathis, said: "Legal services provide real, tangible help to victims of domestic violence. In fact, one recent study found that legal assistance is the most effective intervention for victims. However, most survivors of domestic violence do not have access to safe, affordable, quality legal assistance. The National Domestic Violence Volunteer Attorney Network Act will address this need by increasing access to safe, effective, affordable legal assistance, bringing attention and leadership to the legal needs of victims of domestic violence."

Specifically, Senator Biden's bill would:

- Create a National Domestic Violence Volunteer Attorney Network Referral Project to be managed by the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence.

With $2 million of new federal funding each year, the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence will solicit for volunteer lawyers and then create and maintain an electronic network. It will provide appropriate mentoring, training and technical assistance to volunteer lawyers. And it will establish and maintain a point of contact in each state - a statewide legal coordinator - to help match willing lawyers to victims.

- Enlist the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Internet sources to provide legal referrals.

The bill will authorize $500,000 of new federal spending to the National Domestic Violence Hotline to update their system and train advocates on how to provide legal referrals to callers in coordination with the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence. Legal referrals may also be done by qualified Internet-based services.

- Create a Pilot Program and National Rollout of National Domestic Violence Volunteer Attorney Network and Referral Project.

The bill designs a pilot program to implement the volunteer attorney network in five diverse states with $750,000 grants. The Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice will administer these monies to qualified statewide legal coordinators to help them connect with the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and the volunteer lawyers.

After a successful stint in five states, the bill will rollout the program nationally with annual appropriations of $8 million each year.

- Establish a Domestic Violence Legal Advisory Task Force.

Experts on domestic violence, including judges, law firm lawyers heading up pro bono programs, law school professors, and domestic violence advocates, will be tasked with monitoring the program and making recommendations for improvements.

- Mandate the General Accounting Office to study each state and assess the scope and quality of legal services available to battered women and report back to Congress within a year.

To put the domestic violence epidemic in context, the National Domestic Violence Hotline fielded over 215,220 callers in 2006 alone - an average of 4,138 calls a week. The second-most frequently cited reason behind calls to the Hotline is a legal question or a search for legal help to deal with domestic violence. Additionally, a newly released national survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that in just one 24-hour cycle, over 5,000 pleas for services, be it emergency shelter, transitional housing or legal aid, were unmet because of a lack of resources.

"In essence, there is a gaping hole in our system," said Senator Biden. "Despite the incredible dedication and hard work of these organizations, there are many low-income domestic violence victims who need a lawyer but can't get one. It is critical to match a victim to a willing lawyer as soon as the she calls the Hotline, walks into a courtroom or involves the police so that she doesn't instead retreat back into a life of abuse. I urge my colleagues to support victims of domestic violence by supporting this bill and urge Americans to find ways to combat domestic abuse in your communities.

"And remember, if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, reach out and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)," added Sen. Biden.


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