This fall, the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA) awarded Suffolk University Law School’s Christine Butler its highest honor, celebrating the clinical practitioner’s lifetime of work re-engineering domestic violence law. It's been a long road as Butler and many players involved with domestic abuse legislation pushed the legal system away from an approach that assumed domestic abuse was a private issue and limited police officers' arrest powers.
Watch the WBA’s video tribute to Christine Butler
Butler, recently awarded with the WBA’s Lelia J. Robinson Award, is co-leader of the law school’s Family Advocacy Clinic, where she trains Suffolk Law students to represent clients in domestic abuse and other family law matters. She has been serving as an attorney for abuse survivors for almost 40 years.
The limits on police
Back in the late '70s and early '80s when she first began working on intimate partner assault matters, there was no civil remedy available to survivors of assault except for divorce proceedings when the parties were married. Police had a limited ability to arrest suspects for abuse that they had not witnessed, she says; the power to arrest attached only to felony crimes.
In many situations, she says, police knocked on the door and unless the officers witnessed the assault, they were unable to arrest. “This often placed the victimized partner in an even more dangerous situation because of the abuser’s anger about the police being called.”
At the time, there were no specific responsibilities for the police in regards to communicating the abused persons’ rights, she says. “So you had abuse with no punishment, no negative consequences for the abuser.”
New legislation changes the system
As a law student working at Greater Boston Legal Services Butler had the opportunity to work on the drafting and passage of the Abuse Prevention Act. This statute created a separate legal action that allowed the abused to get civil orders of protection. The latter created no criminal record for the abuser, but the orders were criminally enforceable if there was a violation. This approach was particularly meaningful to the many women trying to avoid jail time for their spouses or partners, but seeking a legal way to stop the abuse, she says.
As a result of the legislation, if the abuser violated the protective order, he or she could be charged with assault and battery as well as the new crime of violation of a protective order. Further, with additional legislation, the police gained the power to arrest for misdemeanor domestic-violence crimes on probable cause alone, for example, credible statements by the victim; other evidence such as visible bruises or blood; or a crime scene indicating a physical struggle.
While doing this work at the beginning of her legal career, Butler also worked with Diane Margolin, then a Suffolk Law student, who wanted to identify ways for law students to assist anyone being abused by a partner. Together Butler and Margolin set up a volunteer training for students, and established the first law school domestic violence course in Massachusetts. That evolved into a clinic, the Battered Women’s Advocacy Project, which was offered at the law school for approximately thirty years.
Legal details sometimes a matter of life or death
The Abuse Prevention Act also required the police to explain to the alleged victim their legal rights, both civil and criminal; remain on the scene long enough to be reasonably assured of the safety of the victim; and transport the injured party to the hospital for medical attention if necessary. Before that time, she said, the abused would often go without medical treatment or risk asking the abuser for transportation.
In the ‘90s, Butler worked with a coalition of advocates, attorneys, judges, legislators and law enforcement officials to amend the Abuse Prevention Act making it accessible to additional potential plaintiffs, refining and increasing the remedies available under the statute. As a result of some of this legislation, the power of arrest on probable cause became available for misdemeanor assaults if the police assessed that the assault was an act of domestic violence.
Butler was a key member of a committee of attorneys and judges who developed new abuse prevention forms. These included the now-standard and more comprehensive check boxes on the court’s protective order form.
Is the abuser a threat to the children?
The committee’s edits included descriptions of visitation options when children were involved. The edits helped educate judges about the circumstances they should consider in allowing parenting time for the abuser, most importantly the safety of the victim and the children. The check boxes reminded judges to consider whether children were safe in the presence of the abuser, who would supervise visitation, and how children could be safely transported for visits.
In a press release, the WBA honors Butler as a trailblazer for an entirely new specialty for family law attorneys [domestic violence], and particularly for women lawyers, adding that “Ms. Butler has both opened doors and advanced opportunities: giving advocates the essential practical tools with which to advocate effectively for clients facing domestic violence.”