Tuesday, June 22, 2010

No-Fault Divorce and Domestic Violence

Last week, New York’s State Senate approved a bill that puts New York on track to become the 50th state to adopt no-fault divorce. Supporters of the bill feel it’s about time. California was the first state to pass no-fault divorce legislation nearly 40 years ago, and since then, all states except New York have done the same.

So what is no-fault divorce? And what kind of societal impact could the adoption of a no-fault divorce law have in New York?

No-fault divorce gives married couples the ability to end their marriage without having to prove that one spouse or the other is to blame. Currently, in order to obtain a divorce in New York, one party must prove that the other is “at fault,” even if both parties agree that they want the marriage to end. In fact, one spouse must “consent” to the divorce by accepting blame for something like adultery, or abandonment, or cruel and inhuman treatment of their partner. The only other way to secure a divorce in New York is to be legally separated for a year.

But if the no-fault divorce legislation passes in the State Assembly, all of this will change. In the shift from consent-based divorce to unilateral divorce, proof of wrongdoing will no longer be required to end a marriage, making a divorce easier and less expensive (litigation-wise) to obtain.

And how does this help victims of domestic violence?

There is evidence that passing no-fault divorce legislation could have a significant impact on levels of domestic violence. In The New York Times, economist Betsey Stevenson writes of her research with colleague Justin Wolfers: “…we uncovered evidence of a large decrease in domestic violence among states that adopted unilateral divorce laws, relative to those (like New York) which did not. This decrease was not just because abused women (and men) could more easily divorce their abusers, but also because potential abusers knew that they were more likely to be left. We found a 30 percent decline in domestic violence – an effect that could only occur if violence decreased in marriages that stayed together.”

To learn more about divorce laws and domestic violence, read Stevenson and Wolfers’ full paper. For information on divorce laws on a state-by-state basis, visit WomensLaw.org.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

VAWA Includes Same-Sex Relationships

Great news! The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) now explicitly applies to domestic violence cases that occur in same-sex relationships. Although VAWA never excluded same-sex couples when it was first passed by congress in 1994, the recent memorandum from the Justice Department now clearly interprets VAWA as including violence perpetrated in gay and lesbian relationships, in addition to heterosexual ones.

David J. Barron, the acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department, argued in his memorandum that the language of VAWA offers protection even when the victim and the offender are of the same sex, and that federal prosecutors should enforce criminal provisions listed in VAWA regardless of the sex of the victim or the offender. In fact, even though the act is called the Violence Against Women Act, the language of VAWA is gender-neutral - - using terms like “intimate partner”, “dating partner”, “spouse” and “another person”.

This is an important decision for gay couples. The New York Times quotes Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel of a gay and lesbian advocacy group called the Human Rights Campaign, as saying: “It’s a step towards equality and recognizing that our relationships exist and are subject to the same sorts of issues that face other committed couples.”

To learn more you can read the memorandum or read about same-sex abuse on WomensLaw.org.