Legal Aid Gives Crime Victims a Voice

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The legal system is intended to protect crime victims, but in the aftermath of crime they oft en find themselves at a loss. The prosecutor represents the state, the defense attorney represents the accused, and victims are traditionally left to navigate subpoenas, discovery, and cross-examination unrepresented. Even after the case is resolved, perpetrators sometimes use civil courts to stalk and harass the survivors.

Thanks to a federal grant from the Office of Victims of Crime, Legal Aid’s Willmar Office now asks every caller, “Are you a crime victim? What problems are you having because of that?”

Ann Cofell, Deputy Director of Legal Aid’s St. Cloud and Willmar Offices, says the grant has opened her eyes to new ways to protect crime victims – especially survivors of sexual assault and harassment. With the grant comes partnerships with the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs and the National Crime Victim Law Institute. These partnerships bring training, technical assistance with crime questions, and the opportunity to share strategies with organizations around the country and across Minnesota.

Because Legal Aid’s resources are limited, some cases – such as conciliation court cases – are not a priority. An adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse being sued by her abuser wouldn’t have been eligible for services. Now, Legal Aid is able to identify harassing litigation and defend the client from further harm.

The biggest shift in Legal Aid’s work, though, is the ability to take crime victim rights cases. Legal Aid has long represented victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment in civil law matters such as housing or family law, but survivors of crime can now get legal advice and assistance on a criminal matter. Many have questions about testifying, or how to have input on the perpetrator’s sentence. They may not understand how restitution and reparations work, and an attorney can help them request financial support for psychotherapy copayments.

One client, Maria, didn’t want to testify when her abuser broke a no-contact order. Maria called Cofell, saying that she couldn’t bear to rehash the violent abuse in court again. After checking with the prosecutor, Cofell was able to reassure Maria that she only needs to testify about the recent violation.

“We give crime victims a voice in the system,” says Cofell. “Without access to a crime victim lawyer to give Maria the facts and help her work through her concerns, she would simply have not shown up. But she did show up and testify, and her ex went to prison for violating the no-contact order. Crime victims are already victimized. To go through the process with no advice and no say victimizes them again.”

Emily Poor, Staff Attorney with Legal Aid’s Legal Assistance to Victims Project, worked with a client who had survived a sexual assault. The defense attorney requested access to the victim’s private therapy records, which Poor knew would have no bearing on the case.

Poor objected to the subpoena, and the court ruled in the client’s favor. The defense attorney had requested private therapy records in court many times but had never before been denied. Because the victim had legal representation, her privacy was protected.

The grant helps to break down walls between criminal and civil law. It protects crime victims’ rights and builds trust and cooperation between the community and the courts and legal process.

“I’ve learned what we were missing at Legal Aid,” says Cofell. “We can now provide comprehensive services to crime victims and help to keep them safe, informed, and protected by the law.”

Leykn Schmatz

Mid-Minnesota legal aid provides free civil legal advice and representation to Minnesotans who cannot afford an attorney. Legal aid serves people with low incomes in 20 counties and people with disabilities statewide.

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