There is a hidden cycle of abuse. It plays out in courtrooms across Washington State and, like many forms of abuse, is incredibly detrimental to survivors’ emotional and economic health. Yet it remains largely unrecognized by the court. We’re talking about abusive litigation.

Abusive litigation is a pattern in which an abuser uses the legal system to continue exerting control over a survivor. Common tactics include repeatedly forcing the survivor into court for child custody proceedings and dragging out litigation for years.

Recognizing that the courts have the most power to curb this cycle, Legal Voice’s David Ward and our Violence Against Women Workgroup have been working diligently to teach judges how to identify the abuse in their courtrooms – and stop it. Today, we urged the Washington Court of Appeals to recognize it as well.

Leslie Mackenzie and her former partner went to court in 2007 to establish a parenting plan for their infant child. By the time the court issued one in 2011, Leslie had already faced so much and depleted her funds to pay legal fees. The court recognized that Leslie “had been financially ruined because of this litigation.” Citing the father’s controlling behavior and “extraordinary litigation,” the court found he had engaged in abusive use of conflict and ordered him to pay Leslie $40,000 in attorney fees.

But that was not the end. The father continued going back to court seeking a modified parenting plan while failing to pay Leslie the $40,000 in fees that she had been previously awarded. Leslie reports that she has been in court—or there has been some sort of action in this casenearly every month for the last 10 years.

Eventually, the father persuaded a different judge to issue a new parenting plan. The new judge failed to recognize the father’s abusive behavior and gave him significantly more residential time with the couple’s child. Leslie is appealing that decision, and Legal Voice is supporting her arguments.

We hope the Court of Appeals will help stop the endless cycle of litigation that Leslie has endured for so long.

From left: Yasmeen Abdullah (Leslie’s trial lawyer), Legal Voice’s David Ward, and Adrienne Stuart (Leslie’s appeal lawyer) outside the Washington State Court of Appeals on July 27, 2017.