If and when a domestic violence survivor chooses to leave, her abuser still has a need for power and control. So it is often the case that an abuser will use the legal system to continue exerting power and control over the survivor, repeatedly forcing her into court for child custody or divorce proceedings, or even for defamation if she reports the abuse.
This pattern, referred to as abusive litigation, is a pervasive problem that has immense emotional and financial impacts on survivors’ lives, yet remains largely unrecognized by the court.
But it’s actually the court—judges, in particular—with the most power to curb this cycle. If judicial officers can identify the signs and the common tactics used by abusers, they can help stop abusers from using litigation as a weapon. So Legal Voice’s David Ward and our Violence Against Women Workgroup wrote a chapter on abusive litigation for the recent update to Washington State’s Domestic Violence Manual for Judges. This publication serves as a reference guide and textbook for judicial officers and court personnel across the state, ensuring they remain knowledgeable on the legal issues facing survivors.
As we prepared to write this chapter, we knew that incorporating the voices of real people who have experienced this rampant form of abuse was critical in understanding the problem. So David and our workgroup conducted interviews with domestic violence survivors, advocates, and attorneys in Washington and from across the country, compiling their experiences to identify key trends among abusers, which then shaped their guidance for Washington judicial officers.
These brave survivors hoped that, by sharing their stories, they could help those in similar situations and prevent it from happening to others. So we further elevated their voices by highlighting their experiences in an article for the Seattle Journal for Social Justice.
A shift in how the courts address abusive litigation must start with attorneys and judges, but the momentum must come from us. Our gratitude goes to members of our Violence Against Women Workgroup—including Antoinette Bonsignore, Michelle Heinz Camps, Erica Franklin, Bess McKinney, Mary Przekop, and Evangeline Stratton—for their outstanding work and unfaltering advocacy for survivors.