Domestic Violence and the Politics of Self-Help

53 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2016 Last revised: 15 Jun 2016

Elizabeth L. MacDowell

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

Date Written: 2016


Self-help programs are conceptualized as alternatives to attorney representation that can help both courts and unrepresented litigants. The rhetoric of self-help also typically includes empowering unrepresented individuals to help themselves. But how do self-help programs respond to litigants’ efforts at self-advocacy? This Article reports findings from a study of courthouse self-help programs assisting unrepresented litigants applying for protection orders. The central finding is that self-help staff members were not neutral in the provision of services despite a professed ethic of neutrality. Using the sociological concept of demeanor, this Article shows that staff members rewarded protection order applicants who conformed to stereotypes about domestic violence victims and responded negatively to litigants who raised questions or sought assistance outside the scope of narrowly defined services. Staff members also failed to provide assistance with important economic remedies and de-prioritized safety planning and referrals to vital antiviolence services. In these and other ways, staff members influenced what relief was sought and by whom. This finding is especially troubling given the overarching goals of domestic violence protection orders to increase safety and empower low-income women, and has broad implications for studying access to justice and law and social movements. This Article also contributes to the analysis of demeanor by expanding previous typologies with the addition of two new categories: token supportive demeanor, and apathetic demeanor. These additions further account for how authority is displayed in legal settings, and how law is implemented through everyday interactions as well as formal decision-making.

Keywords: self-help program, unrepresented litigant, protection order, domestic violence, access to justice, pro se

Suggested Citation

MacDowell, Elizabeth L., Domestic Violence and the Politics of Self-Help (2016). William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 22, p. 203, 2016; UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Lillian MacDowell (Contact Author)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )

4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States
702-895-2080 (Phone)

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