Pro Bono Help for Domestic Violence Victims? Treyger Bill Raises Questions

A City Council bill that would mandate free legal representation for domestic violence victims who go to court to get a divorce from an abusive spouse is winning praise from victims’ advocates but others are raising concerns over what it would cost the city.

On Aug. 8, Councilmember Mark Treyger introduced a bill that would provide free legal assistance to domestic violence victims who want a divorce. Treyger said divorce proceedings take place in New York State Supreme Court and that attorney’s fees can add up to thousands of dollars.

“There are countless victims of domestic violence who face great difficulty shouldering the financial burden throughout what is often a lengthy divorce process. This legislation will empower victims and help them move on with their lives,” Treyger, a Democrat who represents Coney Island, Gravesend and portions of Bensonhurst said in a statement.

Brooklyn Conservative Party Chairperson Gerard Kassar expressed concern that the proposed legislation had not been fully vetted.

“It’s noble, what he’s looking to do. I would support it. But there are already numerous non-profit organizations that receive government funding to provide just such a service,” Kassar told this newspaper on Aug. 13.

Kassar also said he is concerned about the possible duplication of services and the inherent costs involved. “Maybe the programs that already exist need to be strengthened and given more financial support. Maybe we should take a look at that. I’m not sure we need to create a new government program,” he said.

But Kassar quickly added that he thought Treyger’s idea is a good one. “One of the main purposes of government is to protect people and that’s what this is trying to do,” Kassar said.

There is currently a system in place under which financially-strapped victims can obtain divorces at little or no cost.

Section 35 of the Judiciary Law offers litigants who qualify based on income the right to file for divorce in Supreme Court without having to pay.

Meanwhile, Treyger’s bill is winning praise from advocates for domestic violence victims.

Ariel Zwang, CEO of the organization Safe Horizon, said that Treyger deserved credit for “offering pathways to safety for victims of domestic violence who might otherwise be trapped in abusive marriages due to a lack of resources.”

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for WomenNew York, said the group receives numerous phone calls from women seeking help to obtain a divorce.

Having a resource like this where a woman can get expert advice and a lawyer to ensure the court process makes headway is one of the most beneficial things we could do for battered women, Ossorio said in a statement

Treyger’s bill would require the Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator to create programs that would provide free, full legal services for victims of domestic violence who could otherwise not afford the cost of divorce proceedings.

The bill will cover both uncontested and contested divorces, according to Treyger, who said severing marital ties to an abuser can be an important step for victims because it is a way for them to protect their financial assets and their privacy.

Treyger has previously sought other ways to help domestic violence victims.

Earlier this year, the councilmember introduced a bill that would require the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to provide free diapers at domestic violence shelters and childcare centers.

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