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Partners for Women and Justice Offers a Helping Hand With Legal Issues

February 18, 2009 Bob Braun

The Star-Ledger

NJ Voices

Posted by Bob Braun/The Star-Ledger February 18, 2009 3:52PM

Categories: Helping Hands, Must-see stories

There can be money in it- if the clients are rich enough- but many lawyers don't like to touch family law issues. That's one of the reasons state courts set aside one judge just to hear so-called "un-represented" cases-- there are so many of them.

So it's no surprise that one of New Jersey's premier voluntary efforts to help women deal with domestic violence and other family law matters is housed in a Montclair office building that is, to be generous, dismal. No glass tower, this-no conference room with leather chairs and an endless polished table.

"We sometimes have to say 'No,'" says Jane Hanson, executive director of Partners for Women and Justice, a public interest law firm dedicated to the legal problems of women.

"We just don't have the capacity."

If the importance of an issue were judged by standards of life and death, then problems related to family law would attract more attention. On average, of some 450 to 500 homicides a year in New Jersey, about one in five is related to domestic violence—usually a man killing a woman. Sometimes, he kills the kids, too, and then himself.

But both victims and perpetrators are often poor and often members of minority groups, so, while a particularly grisly domestic violence incident- or one involving the rich and famous- might grab attention for a while, generally so-called "intimate partner violence," an odd phrase all by itself, doesn't press hard on the public consciousness.

"If women knew more about their rights, knew more about the courts—and if the courts knew more about the problem—then we might be able to avoid some of these deaths," says Hanson.

She started the group nearly six years ago, but it is still struggling to provide legal representation for women. Partners has a staff of eight, including two full-time attorneys, and an annual budget of about $500,000—or about what one reasonably prosperous family law attorney might make in a year.

Yet, somehow Partners has been able to provide legal representation for more than 1,500 women who could not afford market-priced lawyers. The group relies on the kindness of volunteers. What the profession calls "pro bono" lawyers.

"Actually, it's a great way to provide young attorneys with courtroom experience," says Jack Wurgaft, a trustee of the group and a partner in the Springfield firm of Javerbaum Wurgaft. It's not a firm that does much family law.

Partners has access to about 100 pro bono attorneys and some of the names are well known—like John Azzarello, former senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission and until recently, a frequently mentioned candidate for U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

"Through our pro bono lawyers, we are able to provide real quality legal representation for women seeking final restraining orders," says Hanson.

Those orders- FROs- are designed to keep women and their children safe from potentially dangerous domestic partners. They also, if handled skillfully enough, can provide for a variety of resources for at risk women. Shelter. Child support. Help even in paying off a mortgage.

"Women who go to court to represent themselves often don't know what to ask for, they don't know how to proceed," she says.

This is especially true in our legal system- what Hanson calls a "passive system"- in which judges don't grant what isn't requested.

"Lawyers are needed to educate judges in these types of cases," she says.

Partners can provide free courtroom assistance beyond restraining orders, using its own staff attorneys. But the group is limited by time and resources.

"We give priority to women with a history of suffering violence," she says.

The organization's staff members also will meet with women, answer their legal questions, assist them in representing themselves, and help them draw up legal documents. It also will take phone calls from women seeking advice.

"While most of our work is in North Jersey, we do gel calls from all over the country," says Hanson.

Hanson was a corporate lawyer, a graduate of Rutgers Law School, working on regulatory issues for Prudential. A friend began a similar program in New York. For Hanson, doing a corporate law lost some of its sheen.

"I wanted to do something different—something that could make a difference in the lives of women."