Why Access to Justice Matters: Law Students Fight Domestic Violence Throughout the Year

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Across the nation, October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Each May at Rutgers–Camden, when law students graduate they embark on their legal professions already having made some worlds safer for hundreds of local residents, thanks to work done in the school’s domestic violence programs the whole year through.

For almost two decades, law students – under the supervision of an attorney and full-time clinical faculty at Rutgers–Camden – have represented individuals seeking restraining orders in Camden and Burlington counties.

A domestic violence assistance presence began in the law school in 1995 with a full-fledged clinic opening in 2003. Now both a for-credit clinic exists, where victims are provided with their own lawyers, and a domestic violence pro bono project that connects hundreds of individuals with legal assistance.

According to Victoria Chase, clinical associate professor and chair for clinical programs, in about 10 years more than 6,000 people have received domestic violence legal assistance from Rutgers Law–Camden.

These impressive domestic violence efforts have been recognized by the state, which has long provided financial support.  Chase is the principal investigator on a $55,000 grant from the New Jersey Victims of Crime Act grant program offered by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Justice.

Not only are victims gaining access to legal support they may not have otherwise have found, but Rutgers Law–Camden students are gaining critical skills. “Most domestic violence cases culminate in a bench trial before a Superior Court Judge, so students develop and use trial advocacy skills in addition to interviewing, counseling and negotiation skills,” says Chase. “Students can also enroll in Advanced Domestic Violence Clinic, which is offered in the spring semester and focuses on appellate and other complex cases, amicus briefs, legislative initiatives, and holistic lawyering.”

Through the years, Chase says, several of her law school faculty colleagues have been instrumental in the progress made in the domestic violence clinic, but it’s often the students that make a lasting impression on the clients.

“There is a visible face of law students in the courthouse. Through this often intense process they really start to understand how access to justice matters to individuals. That is especially true when one is facing an immediate problem that affects their well-being,” notes Chase.  “There is a lot riding on a students work and I’m never disappointed in the way they comprehend a case and dedicate themselves to seeing each and every detail through.”

Third-year Rutgers–Camden law student Matthew George is one of the students dedicated to the domestic violence efforts underway at the law school. A volunteer in the domestic violence pro bono project for several semesters and currently one of the co-coordinators, George says the experience has been reaffirming.

“We’re supervised, but ultimately it demonstrates the trust a professor has in us to work with clients and determine how best to accomplish their goals. I was also surprised by how professional other lawyers are; they treat us as fellow lawyers, not simple students. It’s refreshing.”

The pro bono and clinic experience has provided George with more practical skills and procedures than theoretical concepts. “[W]e can put everything we’ve already learned into practice while continuing to refine our trial experience. I had already tried four cases before clinic in an externship, but clinic was my first experience with in-depth client and witness interviewing.”

All of this out-of-the-classroom experience has helped shape George’s future professional life, which he says will focus on public interest in one form or another, perhaps working as a prosecutor or in international justice, focusing on combating human trafficking. George also acknowledges the great value in what he has learned from the clients he served.

“I’ve learned to listen with discernment,” he says.  “People often need to talk, but what they’re really trying to say isn’t always clear. While conversation may have to be directed at times, it’s important to listen to both what the client is saying and what he or she isn’t saying in order to determine what’s most important to them and what’s most important about the case.”

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