The Hidden Costs of Going to Court

by Ken Kolb

“I want a restraining order against him right now.”

The first time I heard a client say this during my research, I was surprised by the response she received. Popular stereotypes depict victim advocates and counselors as over-zealous “man-haters” who rush their clients to call the cops or file legal complaints; yet, the staff member I observed that day did the exact opposite.  Instead, she encouraged her client to “go slow” before making a final decision. After more than a year of fieldwork inside an agency that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, I came to learn that advocates and counselors see courtrooms with a much wider degree of skepticism than most people realize.

There are many reasons why staff members in these kinds of agencies are hesitant to work with the criminal justice system; one of which is directly tied to the economic insecurity of many of their clients. For victims who work at hourly jobs, taking time off to spend in court can mean taking a pay cut, or worse. Low paying jobs seldom offer employees the flexibility to leave work on a moment’s notice. As a result, even for those with pro bono legal representation, going to court can be an uncertain proposition. Is a restraining order worth getting fired over?

In summary, although domestic violence and sexual assault are rooted in gender inequality, their effects are often exacerbated by economic inequality. For those who don’t have flexible work arrangements, the court system can be a costly venture. Should staff members encourage their clients to accept these risks in the hopes of a successful verdict? This is just one of the many dilemmas that victim advocates and counselors face on a daily basis.

 

Kenneth Kolb is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Furman University and author of Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling.