July 2006 Bar Bulletin

 

Recent Laws Protect Domestic Violence Victims

By Jaime Drozd Allen

 

The past decade has seen major advances in legislation designed to protect victims of domestic violence and Washington has been in the forefront of much of the legislative progress. While there still is plenty of progress to be made, the following provides a sample of the advances made in Washington to help assist domestic violence victims.

Residential Relief
In 2004, "to increase safety for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking by removing barriers to safety and offering protection against discrimination,"1 a new law gave domestic violence victims relief from the obligations they faced under residential rental or lease agreements. The law protects "[v]ictims of violence [who] may be forced to remain in unsafe situations because they are bound by residential lease agreements."2

The Legislature also found that the inability to terminate rental or lease agreements:

The law, an amendment to the Washington Residential Landlord Tenant Act, allows domestic violence victims to break rental or lease agreements without penalty.4 Once a tenant gives notice of domestic violence and the tenant's intention to terminate the lease, the landlord is barred from evicting the tenant, or refusing to renew a lease or sign a new rental agreement, because of the report of domestic violence.5 The tenant is responsible for rent only up until the last day of the month in which the tenant has given the landlord notification.6

To take advantage of this provision, a tenant must first notify the landlord in writing that he/she, or a household member, was a victim of domestic violence.7 The tenant must then either have a valid protective order in place or have reported the domestic violence to a third party who has documented and signed the tenant's report.8

Unemployment Compensation
Washington's domestic violence unemployment statute has been called "one of the country's most comprehensive and generous."9 As such, it may allow a domestic violence victim to obtain unemployment benefits if she loses her job because she is forced to relocate to flee an unsafe situation. This furthers the overall goal of unemployment insurance "to provide income to jobless workers during periods of unemployment and to provide a measure of economic stability to the economy."10

With this legislation, Washington has joined 17 other states that have made domestic violence a factor to consider in calculating unemployment compensation. This consideration is necessary because "[v]ictims of domestic violence are often forced to resign employment either to escape future assault or because they are unable to perform as a consequence of the violence."11

In general, and among other qualifications, a claimant must be unemployed and unable to find suitable work. In Washington, if an individual qualifies for unemployment benefits because of the need to leave his/her job to protect the claimant or the claimant's "immediate family members from domestic violence,"12 then "an evaluation of the suitability of the work must consider the individual's need to address the physical, psychological, legal, and other effects of domestic violence or stalking."13

A New Privilege
In its most recent term, the Legislature passed House Bill 2848, known as the Protecting Confidentiality of Domestic Violence Information Act. The law was signed by the Gov. Christine Gregoire on March 27 and became law on June 7.

This law provides an important testimonial privilege for domestic violence advocates by making information told by a victim to an advocate privileged and confidential unless the victim waives the privilege. While domestic violence advocates have long held information confidential, this law allows them to do so in the judicial system with less likelihood of legal repercussions or maneuvering.

Essentially, HB 2848 adds a domestic violence advocate's communications with a domestic violence victim to Washington's list of testimonial privileges, which already includes privileges for communications between husband/wife, attorney/client, physician/ patient, sexual assault advocate/victim, and others.14

A domestic violence advocate is defined as "an employee or supervised volunteer from a community-based domestic violence program or human services program that provides information, advocacy, counseling, crisis intervention, emergency shelter, or support to victims of domestic violence."15 The privilege does not apply to advocates who work for law enforcement agencies, prosecutor's offices or child protective services because their roles have traditionally been different than those included within the law.

The privilege is not unqualified. Similar to the privilege for sexual assault advocates, otherwise privileged information may be disclosed "without the victim's consent if failure to do so is likely to result in clear, imminent risk of serious physical injury or death of the victim or another person."16 The privilege also does not relieve domestic violence advocates from the mandatory reporting of child abuse.17

The new law also protects a domestic violence program from disclosing information about a "recipient of shelter, advocacy, or counseling services without the informed authorization of the recipient."18 Again, like the testimonial privilege, the new law provides added judicial and legal protection for domestic violence programs so they are less likely to be forced to reveal potentially harmful information.

Next Steps
The recent Washington legislation has given domestic violence victims added assurances in the legal system and more resources to assist them in making a transition. While substantial progress has been made in this area, the public's continued focus on this pervasive problem likely will result in additional legislation to fill the need to further protect and assist victims of domestic violence. n

Jaime Drozd Allen is an associate in the Litigation Department at Ogden Murphy Wallace P.L.L.C. She can be reached at jallen@omwlaw.com.

1 RCW 59.18.570(2).
2 RCW 59.18.570(1).
3 Id.
4 RCW 59.18.575.
5 RCW 59.18.580.
6 RCW 59.18.575(2).
7 Id.
8 RCW 59.18.575(a)(i-ii).
9 R. Smith, R. McHugh, R. Runge, Unemployment Insurance and Domestic Violence: Learning From Our Experiences, 1 Seattle J. for Soc. Just. 503, 52627 (2002).
10 Id. at 505.
11 Id. at 503.
12 RCW 50.20.050(1)(b)(iv), (2)(b)(iv).
13 RCW 50.20.100(4).
14 RCW 5.60.060.
15 HB 2848; RCW 5.60.060(8)(a).
16 RCW 5.60.060(8)(b).
17 Id.
18 RCW 7.123.040(4).

 

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