Abusive relationships are challenging no matter where you are in the relationship. Whether you are still in an abusive relationship, preparing to leave, or left the relationship, abusive partners will do whatever they can to maintain or re-establish power and control over their partner. If someone was married to or had children with their abusive partner, the abusive partner may use the court system against them. One way that survivors continue to experience harassment and abuse after leaving is through litigation abuse.
Litigation abuse is when an abusive partner misuses the court system to maintain power and control. It often occurs when divorce or custody is involved, as abusive partners will use a divorce settlement or custody issues to continue the abuse. Custody cases can be more complex because they allow discovery, which is the exchange of documents and information between the parties before trial. Abusive partners may file frivolous requests and demand excessive or irrelevant information from the survivor. Survivors often feel obligated to share this information, even if it is unrelated or deeply personal because they do not want to jeopardize their court case. This can lead to a high-conflict custody case. These cases make up only 3-5% of all custody cases, but nearly all of them have a history of domestic violence or sexual abuse. These exchanges force the survivor to remain in contact with the person who abused them, meaning they must still deal with the abuse.
Another aspect of litigation abuse that survivors face is the financial impact. The legal system is complex and confusing, so many survivors will get a lawyer or legal advocate to support them with their case. While there are local resources that can sometimes help survivors find a pro bono lawyer or legal advocate, many survivors must pay for legal representation. This can be expensive, especially as many survivors are already impacted by financial abuse. This can make it challenging to afford long-term legal support. Abusive partners know this, so they may continue to file motions that require multiple court appearances to raise legal expenses. This can leave the survivor with no representation or money. This may lead to survivors making important concessions in family law cases such as giving up demands for child or spousal support or giving in to less desirable resolutions. Litigation abuse can also be retraumatizing as survivors are forced to see and interact with their abusive partner after leaving. It can also be difficult to talk about the abuse again or share intimate details with strangers.
Once someone realizes that litigation abuse is occurring, there are steps they can take to protect themselves and reduce the negative impact. The legal system and courts differ from state to state, so speaking with a legal advocate can give insight into what actions are effective or not. Some ways to stop litigation abuse and safety plan can include:
- Document the harassment to try and prove to the judge that the cases the abusive partner is bringing is not based on common sense and instead is to harass you.
- If you do choose to hire an attorney, do your research, explore their reviews, and read the attorney-client contract before signing to ensure they do not have excessive costs.
- Request detailed monthly invoices from the attorney to know what you are paying for.
- Ask the judge to order the party that brings the excessive motions to pay your court costs and attorney fees.
- Track your court dates and submissions online through the county website or by calling the Court Clerk to ensure you do not miss any court dates.
- Request that the party who files meaningless motions reimburse lost wages or other expenses caused by repeatedly having to go to court.
- Request to be excused from appearing at court hearings or suggest letting you attend virtually.
- Before attending court, emotionally and mentally prepare to see the abusive partner and discuss personal information.
- See if a trusted family member or friend can attend court with you for support.
- If required to attend court, request an escort to and from your car or request that the partner who was abusive remain in the building until you leave.
- Be aware of your surroundings as you leave to ensure you are not stalked or followed home.
Support is Available
We know abusive partners will use whatever methods they can to maintain power and control over their ex, even after they have left. Litigation abuse is one way they may continue to abuse and harass their ex. Unfortunately, many judges or individuals in the legal system do not understand the dynamics of power and control in abusive relationships or use outdated facts and data when addressing these types of cases. Resources like Womenslaw.org or your state coalitions can help you learn more about your state’s specific laws regarding the court system. Our website or other programs can help you find lawyers or legal advocates in your area that can potentially help you as well. Should you have questions or concerns, our advocates are available 24/7 through phone, chat, and text. You are not alone.