Victim Rights Law Center utilizes pro bono attorneys to meet civil needs of sexual assault victims

Issue May 2008 By Kelsey Sadoff

While working as a volunteer advocate with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, law student Susan Vickers noticed victims were facing civil issues outside of the criminal realm, with no place to get legal help. Thanks to Vickers, when one young woman was raped by her supervisor five years ago, the woman received the pro bono representation she needed to help reclaim her life — through the Victim Rights Law Center, the first and one of only a few organizations in the country where sexual assault victims are provided with free civil legal representation.

Created in conjunction with BARCC, and acting as a stand-alone organization since 2003, VRLC has a one victim, one lawyer mission — attempting to establish a client/attorney relationship that can alter the course of the victim’s life and provide stabilization in the aftermath of an assault. Since its conception, VRLC has assisted more than 500 victims a year in Massachusetts. It also serves as a national technical assistance provider, answering questions and providing aid to other programs nationwide and in the territories.

“VRLC is transforming the legal system’s response to rape,” said VRLC Staff Attorney Kate Lawson. “The criminal system is not equipped to handle these types of responses, and that leaves most survivors with no legal representation following an assault.”

Currently, there are 170 pro bono attorneys – ranging from solo practitioners to members of 21 law firms – available to represent clients in safety (restraining orders), immigration and privacy of privileged records cases. The VRLC gives 60 cases to its pro bono attorneys each year, most of which are concentrated in Western Massachusetts, thus making the organization’s one victim, one lawyer mission possible. When a client enlists the help of the VRLC, a summary of his/her case is e-mailed to a private list of pro bono attorneys, from which a volunteer usually emerges. This enables the VRLC to make sure each client is assigned an attorney focusing solely on the client’s individual legal issues.

As part of its pro bono program, VRLC provides a two-hour training session for each volunteer attorney. The training covers substantive areas of law and gives an overview of the potential challenges they might face while working with victims.

“Rape survivors have unique issues with client relationships,” said VRLC Staff Attorney Lindy Aldrich. “This is mostly due to the trauma that they faced.”

VRLC has also created a one-to-one mentoring program for volunteer attorneys, offering a staff attorney for support and for the pro bono attorney to utilize as he or she sees fit. Conscious of the typical pro bono attorney’s limited schedule, VRLC assigns cases that require only two to three weeks of attention, although VRLC also provides representation in housing, employment, criminal justice, benefits and education cases.

Five years ago, attorney Stacy Malone represented the young female victim that turned to VRLC for help. Malone, who joined VRLC as part of its pro bono attorney program, now serves on the board of directors, acting as board clerk and chair of development.

“I worked with a mentor and VRLC staff attorneys, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” said Malone. “The VRLC and its pro bono program helped this young woman reclaim her life. I think we forget that sexual assault victims are teachers, students, co-workers and family members that surround us every day.”

Many sexual assault victims fall into the 18–24 age group, but VRLC represents victims as young as 12. The majority of VRLC clients are women, but a significant number of men seek civil representation as well.

Motivating the attorneys working with VRLC is the understanding that sexual assault impacts the victim’s entire life, causing potential complications such as housing issues and work absences. VRLC’s pro bono attorney program works with assault victims to increase the likelihood that they stay in college, keep their home and retain their jobs.

“The law practiced at VRLC is cutting edge, and many attorneys want to be a part of this exciting movement,” said Malone. “New lawyers gain valuable legal experience while working with a mentor. Experienced attorneys are excited to practice in an area of law outside of their daily job. The VRLC is a wonderful outlet for all attorneys because it allows them to utilize their skills to make a major impact in the lives of the people in their own community.”

“Pro bono help is critical to help us answer the victim’s needs,” remarked Lawson. “We are creating new law around sexual assault, and civil attorneys are a critical piece to a victim’s needs being met.”
The VRLC is funded in part by the Office of Violence Against Women and by private sources and donations.