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Barriers To Legal System Can Be A Life Or Death Issue

August 29, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The West Virginia Supreme Court is looking at ways to make the state's legal system more open and available. According to advocates for victims of domestic violence, that can be a matter of life or death.

On Valentine's Day 2002, Lisa Tyler's husband beat her nearly to death with a 3-foot piece of metal. After he went to jail, she could not afford a lawyer to sue for restitution or to have her sons' last names changed. She also was not told of a hearing that cut his prison sentence short.

"The way I found out about it, was I read it in the newspaper a couple of days later. I would have shown up in my pajamas if I'd of needed to. Why I wasn't notified, I was told there wasn't time."

Tyler says the system could do more to notify victims. Plus, she says more advocates should be able to give more legal advice, and more lawyers should be willing to do pro-bono work.

Tyler spoke about access issues to a state Supreme Court commission, which is holding meetings around the state through mid-November.

One problem is that people often don't know their legal rights, according to Marie Bechtel, supervising attorney for Legal Aid of West Virginia, Beckley. She says attorneys in her office make it a priority to advise victims of domestic violence. However, she says, Legal Aid is so overwhelmed that it has to turn away one-third of all applicants, which leaves many in the dark.

"Every now and again, we will have a client say they had no idea that protective orders even existed within the court system."

According to Tyler, that ignorance can be deadly. For example, she says if a woman doesn't know to sign up, she might not be notified that their abuser has been released from jail. She says those kinds of situations may be escaping public attention.

"If my case being so publicized has so many things go wrong in it, what happens to people whose cases are unknown?"

The national domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE.


Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV