The Law School’s Domestic Violence Clinic turns students’ passion to service
Published December 1, 2014
SUNY Buffalo Law School’s Domestic Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic makes a difference for clients at a critical juncture in their lives. Building on decades of work at SUNY Buffalo combating domestic violence through an award winning clinic, various classes, and community outreach by students and faculty, the students enrolled in Clinic this semester are representing clients in Erie County Family Court, New York State Supreme Court, and other venues. They are also engaged in advocacy and outreach through partnerships with community organizations aimed at creating systemic change. The cases and related work reflects the Clinic’s core mission of representing persons who are the targets of interpersonal violence and abuse.
“This law school’s strong history of innovative and inspiring work on domestic violence and related areas is exceptional,” says Professor Kim Diana Connolly, Director of Clinical Legal Education. “We are delighted we were able to hire Christopher Moellering, an experienced litigator with a strong commitment to public service and teaching, to serve as Clinical Teaching Fellow for this Clinic.”
Moellering says “I’m coming into a community that is already supportive of this kind of work and committed to doing it. I’m privileged to be able to build on more than twenty years of clinical work by Professor Sue Tomkins, who has retired, as well as scholarly and educational commitments by other faculty members to domestic violence and family law. Programs like the Family Law Concentration available to SUNY Buffalo law students, and the Domestic Violence Task Force, a student group, demonstrate this law school’s intellectual focus and commitment to service in this important area. We have the administrative and faculty support to build on earlier efforts, continue to innovate, and work toward results that will benefit a marginalized and underserved population in Western New York.”
The Clinic connects with clients through a number of different sources, including referrals by community partners such as the Family Justice Center, a one-stop resource for women in crisis. Moellering consulted with multiple community organizations working on domestic violence issues in Erie County, and together they identified a population of victims who do not qualify for the Assigned Counsel Program or other free legal service providers, but who cannot afford to retain a private attorney. Some of these victims make slightly too much based on income guidelines to qualify for free representation, or do not have access to their finances because they are being controlled by the abuser. “In many instances, we are representing the working poor. The population we’re targeting desperately needs help, and has nowhere to turn,” Moellering says. Even in a few months of operation, it has become clear that there is an ample supply of potential clients. Because of the dual nature of what the Clinical Legal Education Program does – teaching future lawyers while helping those in need – no clinic can be a high-volume provider of legal services. However, as the Clinic expands in the spring semester, Moellering looks forward to clinic students taking on a slightly higher number of clients.
A key pedagogical goal of the Domestic Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic, Moellering says, is to expose students to the traditional role of courtroom advocate/litigator. In furtherance of that aim, the students “first chair” all cases. This means future lawyers get to take the lead during interviews of new clients, drafting of documents, preparation for hearings and trials, and then they sit with the client at the counsel table in court arguing the case to a judge. In New York State, students who have completed at least two semesters of law school can be admitted to supervised practice of law under a licensed attorney. The Clinic is open to second- and third-year students.
“Studies show that people who have attorneys tend to have higher success rates than those who appear pro se. Although the students are still learning the craft of lawyering, we strive to provide our clients with high-level, competent representation,” Moellering says. “Court procedures can be confusing, intimidating and esoteric, especially if these cases wind up going to trial. There are rules of evidence, rules about objections that can be made in direct and cross-examination, and court processes and procedures which are difficult to adequately master in a short span of time. The clinic provides a safe space to learn and meaningful representation to those otherwise without full access to justice.”
Students are scheduled to begin representing clients in the Buffalo City Court’s new Human Trafficking Intervention Court, established to fight sex trafficking. Moellering says that when people, most often women, are arrested on charges of prostitution or solicitation, and sometimes for other offenses, they may be diverted to this Court if red flags for trafficking are raised during an initial evaluation. Human Trafficking Intervention Court, drawing inspiration from successful drug courts and other treatment approaches, represents an entirely new model for combatting trafficking by focusing on the victims of this crime rather than the perpetrators. The Court recognizes these defendants for the victims they truly are, and tries to provide them with the services and support they need to escape sexual servitude. In this context, Clinic students will serve a criminal defense function, within a collaborative model of court practice.
Ongoing in the Clinic is an initiative to develop a curriculum – intended for use in middle and high schools – addressing issues of dating violence and the nexus of technology and sexuality. Law students, working with community partners, are wrestling with how best to guide young people on issues such as sexting and cyberstalking. “Students of this generation are seeing their dating lives and practices change as the result of new media and technology,” Moellering says. “We want to help these young people recognize the potential long term consequences – legal, administrative, social, moral, professional – of behaviors facilitated by new technologies.”
In an Oct. 23 visit to the Law School – during Domestic Violence Awareness Month – State Sen. Mark Grisanti recognized the Domestic Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic with an official proclamation. Noting that the Clinic is “the only law clinic of its kind in Western New York that represents a unique clinical model combining work with victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse,” the document proclaimed, “The New York State Senate and the State of New York offers its deepest gratitude to SUNY Buffalo Law School and the Domestic Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic for its efforts in addressing domestic violence in our community.”