Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Randy Albelda

Second Advisor

Elizabeth Bussiere

Third Advisor

Shoshanna Ehrlich


The problems associated with the civil legal system for women who have experienced domestic violence have been persistent over time and still exist today. The current sociopolitical context in this state frames access to civil legal services either through a means-tested (and underfunded) program (Civil Legal Assistance) or as a privately purchased market service. This leaves a limited amount of low- or no-cost alternatives, which creates a gap in services for those women whose income is too high to qualify for Civil Legal Assistance programs, yet too low to afford to hire a private attorney. This study examines this two-tiered system, and reveals that the alternative to full Civil Legal Assistance or individually purchased full-scale legal representation for women who fall into the services gap is a system that is confusing, faces a lack of coordination, and may lead to less than optimal outcomes in civil legal cases related to domestic violence. This study explores the workings of this system from the perspective of the women using it and the service providers within it. Through surveys of 18 women seeking civil legal assistance and 11 interviews with legal services advocates and providers, this research identifies the areas that remain problematic for women who experience domestic violence and turn to the civil legal services for help.

By placing this study within the theoretical framework of feminist legal theory, and in particular dominance theory, some insight is shed on the potential public policy remedies that should be sought to address the problems associated with civil legal services. Dominance theory firmly asserts that gender inequality is the root of the problem of domestic violence, and that the historical legacy of patriarchy has created and sustained gender inequality in the social and legal institutions in our society. It is clear from my results that women face many barriers when attempting to access civil legal remedies for domestic violence, and that the process involved in utilizing civil legal services suffers from a consistent and pervasive lack of resources to address the problems and a lack of service coordination, which inhibit a woman's ability to gain the services she needs to resolve issues around domestic violence. It is also clear that there are benefits that ensue from having access to high quality civil legal services, and that public policy should be utilized to address the gap in justice that women face. Dominance theory indicates that the resolution of some of these problems must come from an examination and a restructuring of the civil legal system.

Three public policy implications of my research are explored. First, I examine the possibility of expanding the use of specialized courts, such as the Domestic Violence court that operates in Dorchester, Massachusetts. This approach represents a re-structuring of the legal system to address the specific issue of domestic violence. Next, I examine the role that community-based organizations play and the possibility of gaining operational efficiencies that will close the service gap. Last, I examine ways in which the gap in services and justice can be narrowed through policies that will increase the amount of resources available to address the problem. This study also provides a framework for future research on the intersection of law and domestic violence.