Elizabeth resident Celena Roby, right, addresses the state Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission during its final hearing Nov. 15 in the Court's chambers in Charleston. (Photo by Lawrence Smith)
CHARLESTON -- Increasing the availability of legal services to domestic violence victims took center stage at the final hearing of a judicial reform panel.
The state Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission conducted its sixth and final hearing in Charleston on Tues. Nov. 15 in the Court's chambers. The Commission, which met previously in Beckley, Huntington, Martinsburg, Wheeling and Morgantown, is looking at what barriers stifle access to the state's civil justice system.
The first to speak before the Commission was Kelly Caldwell of Charleston. Her divorce proceeding always seemed to be tilted in her ex-husband's favor, she said, as he had a private attorney while she had one from Legal Aid of West Virginia.
Caldwell said she divorced her husband after living in an abusive relationship, and him exercising "complete financial control" over her. According to Caldwell, that control continued after the divorce when, despite their settlement agreement, she continued to be saddled with debts he incurred particularly through his business.
After another year of legal wrangling, Caldwell said she was able to get relieved of all past debts from the Internal Revenue Service. The matter could've been resolved more quickly, she said, if her attorney didn't have such a large caseload.
Along with more advocates to help domestic violence victims navigate the court system, Caldwell said the way to improve access to justice was with more Legal Aid attorneys. When asked by Justice Brent Benjamin what her alternatives would've been without Legal Aid, Caldwell replied, "none."
Like Caldwell, Krista Fink said her ex-husband seemed to have the advantage over her during their divorce. Despite compiling information, including bank and credit card statements, that "led to our financial ruin" that could lead to a favorable settlement, she said it was to no avail.
"All my careful attention to detail did no good," she said. "His word seemed to have more weight than my documentation. Even worse my documentation wasn't even considered."
Because the then-lawmaster wouldn't consider her evidence, and wanting desperately to get out of her marriage, Fink said she, reluctantly, agreed to pay, along with her personal debts, a portion of her ex-husband's business debts for a year. However, Fink said he reneged on the agreement, and moved out of state.
For the next three years, Fink said she sought answers on how to collect money from her ex-husband only to get pat answers from courthouse staff about not being able to give legal advice. Even her attorney wouldn't give her answers unless she paid her another $1,800.
"Had I gotten the simple answers I needed initially rather than three years the whole process should've taken a few months and under $100 of filing and service fees," Fink said.
When she filed for divorce in 2000, Fink said she was unaware of her ability to file for a domestic violence protective order, and apply for a Legal Aid attorney. She said more resources need to be devoted to not only making Legal Aid attorneys, but also advocates available to domestic violence victims.
"There aren't now, the Legal Aid attorneys to take on domestic violence cases regardless of income," she said. "Had this been offered to me, it would've made an insurmountable difference to have had an attorney knowledgeable of the ins and outs of domestic violence, and sensitive to the needs of victims."
"Had I had an advocate attend my divorce hearing with me, it would've allowed me to focus on the case and not so much on how my abuser might try to hurt, humiliate me and control me in a public setting," Fink added.
Better training for courthouse staff on being sensitive to the needs of domestic violence victims, and how to answers questions that won't be construed as legal advice is an improvement Celina Roby would like to see. A construction worker, volunteer firefighter and single mother of two boys from Elizabeth, Roby said she was told the only way she could get either an extension of her original domestic violence protective order or a new one is if her ex-husband harmed her.
"When victims like myself walk into a courthouse, we are rarely granted immediate access to a judge," she said. "We are initially greeted by a clerk, an assistant, a secretary."
"Most victims have little knowledge of the guidelines of the preponderance of evidence to get a DVP," she added. "I firmly believe we can improve this barrier by further education and training of courthouse personnel."
In answering questions from Benjamin, Roby said with the help of her Legal Aid attorney she was able to get six months extensions of her DVP in the course of her divorce proceeding. The inquiry about the extension came, Roby said, when "incidents of stalking and harassment increased" by her ex-husband, who wanted to keep control over her.
"For all the years I lived with my abuser, I felt like a puppet, and he controlled the strings," Roby said. "My abuser controlled everything in my life from when I could eat to when I could sleep."
Earlier this year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed law named after Roby that created the misdemeanor offense of unlawful restraint. The law was created after a magistrate in Pleasants County, where Roby previously lived, found her ex-husband, Joseph Campbell, not guilty of domestic assault in December 2009.
In March 2008, Roby accused Campbell of accosting her in their bathroom, and blocking her from leaving. Though Campbell allowed her to eventually leave, Roby alleges it wasn't before he pushed her up against a wall causing her head to strike, at least once, against the cabinet.
Fewer resources for more need
Later during the hearing, Bruce Perrone, a Legal Aid attorney, said he came "as the bearer of bad news." As part of proposed cuts in the federal budget, Perrone said LAWV can expect to lose $471,000 next fiscal year.
Though the roughly 10 percent cut is not as bad as the ones it took in 1981 and 1996 for 25 and 33 percent, respectively, Perrone said it was, nevertheless, "a pretty severe blow." Because LAWV is already "a pretty lean operation," any cuts will most assuredly come in the form of personnel.
"As you consider the issues in access to justice, we will now be facing many more barriers," Perrone said.
This angered Steve Canterbury, the Court's administrative director, and one of the commissioners. Any savings in cutting the budget to allow low-income people to have access to attorneys for civil matters, Canterbury said will be offset by many of those people winding up in the criminal justice system.
"This is pennywise, and extremely pound foolish," he said.
Among some of the ideas considered by the Commission was a requirement that all attorneys perform a certain number of hours performing pro bono work as a condition of keeping their license. When Canterbury asked if he supported the idea, Perrone appeared indifferent.
While LAWV works with the various county bar associations to create a network of pro bono attorneys, Perrone said many do not bring the "substantive knowledge" LAWV needs for its clients.
"They're willing to handle all the First Amendment cases we can give them or all the corporate taxation cases we can give them, but we don't see many of those kinds of cases," Perrone said.
As a result of the hearings, Benjamin said he's hopeful ways can be discovered to get more attorneys doing pro bono work in areas they're qualified.
"It's time for us to get creative," he said.