“I didn’t realize it was domestic violence because he only ever hit me with an open palm.”


Family Law

When family relationships break down, lawyers become necessary to mediate disputes and protect any children. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, lawyers aren’t available for poor households. This results in festering interpersonal problems that last decades and often, victimization of the weaker party.  If lawyers were available to all households in San Francisco, we could ensure the speedy resolution of family disputes and the protection of all domestic violence victims.

Featured Story: Monica Elliott

Monica suffered through over a decade of physical and emotional abuse from her husband before deciding that she had had enough. She needed to get away from him, but was denied housing at every place she applied to.

Understanding the Issue

Domestic Violence

Victims of domestic violence are not entitled to representation and consequently find it very challenging to obtain and enforce restraining orders. When they do file restraining orders, they are often forced to defend themselves, without any help, from retaliatory restraining order. Restraining orders, though, are only the tip of the iceberg. In order to effectively separate themselves from toxic relationships, they often also need help obtaining a divorce and creating acceptable child custody/support relationships. At all stages, legal representation is critical to making an effective split between the abuser and victim. Unlike shelters, hotlines, and counseling programs – the availability of legal aid actually decreases the incidence of domestic violence.1

Child Custody/Support

Almost all poor households enter family court unrepresented and without any legal help, making it extremely difficult for judges to determine what custody and support arrangements are truly in the best interests of the child. Decisions end up turning on which parent is better at play-acting in court, sometimes resulting in grossly unfair orders that effectively prevent a fit parent from seeing their children. Without legal help, situations like this can persist for years or even decades.


With no legal assistance in divorces, poor households just stay married – for years or even decades after they were separated. This clouds their credit, prevents them from obtaining loans, and puts all of their current assets at risk.

  1. Farmer and Tiefenthaler, “Explaining the Recent Decline in Domestic Violence” (April 2003), available at https://www.nasams.org/DMS/Documents/1195248210.25/Explaining%20Decline%20in%20Domestic%20Violence.pdf


1. American University, Key Studies and Data About How Legal Aid Improves Housing Outcomes https://www.american.edu/spa/jpo/toolkit/upload/housing-7-30-19.pdf

2. George Washington Law School, In Pursuit of Justice? Case Outcomes and the Delivery of Unbundled Legal Services https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi