Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruth had watched as her husband’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. He would pace back and forth in the middle of the night in their California home, Ruth alleges, and would subject her to verbal abuse that escalated in both “frequency and severity”—sometimes in front of their young daughter. He’d also taken full control of the family’s finances, losing the bulk of their joint savings account by trading options.
And then things turned violent. “It reached a breaking point when he pushed me in the library,” Ruth says. That’s when she took out her first temporary restraining order against her husband a little more than a year ago.
That restraining order was just the beginning of Ruth’s ongoing legal battle with her husband, who’s also refusing her requests for a divorce. Shortly after she filed that first restraining order, her husband hit back with what she calls a “retaliatory restraining order” against her. When a judge declined that restraining order, he filed another, lengthier one. The filings didn’t stop there. Ruth’s husband, who’d recently graduated from law school, then began filing appeals, first to her initial restraining order, then going after the district court in their area and even a judge who’d been scheduled to oversee a hearing for Ruth to renew a restraining order.
Ruth’s current restraining order against her husband includes a “no contact clause,” which means “the court is his only way to contact me and send me messages,” she says. In other words, he’s forcing her to continue to engage with him through hearings and other court proceedings. “He’s abusing the court system to communicate with me because he’s unhappy with the restraining order and wants to reconcile our marriage.”
Today, Ruth and her husband have 12 ongoing cases across seven different court systems related to matters spanning their pending divorce, child custody, restraining orders, and her husband’s various appeals. Per his legal filings, Ruth’s husband has made numerous claims, including calling her domestic violence restraining order “erroneous” and saying the court had violated his rights by denying him visitation rights to his daughter for several months. (Fast Company did not contact Ruth’s husband for comment due to concerns for her and her child’s safety but instead reviewed multiple court filings and case documents. Ruth is a pseudonym.)
This method of an abusive partner or ex using the court system as a means of harassment and stalking is known as abusive or vexatious litigation, in which abusers file frivolous lawsuits as a means of exerting power and control over their victims. These filings force victims to repeatedly return to court, a financially draining obligation that compels them to engage with the abusers they’re trying to leave.
“The reality is some of these abusers are so used to manipulation and control of their victim, that when they’re told by a court, ‘Hey, you can’t contact that person,’ they’ll go to any lengths they can to continue their manipulation and control [by] abusing the court process,” says Jordan Cunningham, a former California State Assemblyman who authored a new state bill that lets courts sanction alleged perpetrators of domestic violence deemed to be “vexatious litigants.” (Only one other state, Tennessee, has a similar law.) Ruth tried to take advantage of the new California law early on in the legal saga with her husband, but at that time she was told her case did not meet the criteria. She says she plans to get her husband labeled as a “vexatious litigant” again.
Though Ruth currently works with consulting lawyers on an ad hoc basis, she needs additional help to effectively combat the overwhelming amount of litigation her husband keeps throwing her way. As a PhD student familiar with the latest tech, she decided to try using a variety of free and low-cost technological tools to bolster her knowledge about the court system, organize her numerous cases, and stay on top of her husband’s harassment. These tools include those she’s used before in her office, like Airtable, and buzzy new technology she and her colleagues have been discussing like ChatGPT, as well as apps offering data protection and privacy.
“This is my new normal—I go to court once or twice a month,” Ruth says. These technologies are among the only ways she’s found relief in the nearly full-time job of defending herself against her husband. “Everybody who’s self-represented has to know about this,” Ruth says, perking up as the talk shifts to tech like ChatGPT. “It’s so amazing.”
TECHNOLOGY HELPING WITH SELF-REPRESENTATION
Like many others on the receiving end of abusive litigation, Ruth has largely had to represent herself in court. Since her husband controlled and then lost much of the family’s finances, Ruth has largely been unable to afford a lawyer. (Ruth is currently a PhD student and daycare alone for her daughter, she says, takes up more than half her salary.) And when she did find pro bono representation for a brief period, the firm ultimately quit Ruth’s case, citing a lack of bandwidth to deal with her husband’s pileup of court filings, she says, some of which spanned hundreds of pages.
Ruth describes this as part of her husband’s “strategy” to exhaust her in court—“to financially drain me so that I would be forced to reconcile with him out of financial desperation,” she says. Ruth estimates having already paid around $12,000 on lawyers’ fees.
Without lawyers’ help, Family Court can be extremely difficult to navigate, explains Cathy Cramer, CEO of New York-based Family Legal Care, which aims to make this court more accessible to self-representing litigants. “There’s a lot of legalese—terminology people don’t understand. There’s a lot of procedure they don’t understand,” she says. “It’s not uniform procedure across the courts, [and] people are very overwhelmed and confused.” There’s also the trauma of self-representation for intimate partner violence survivors, which assistant professor at the University of Georgia School of Law and researcher with the Clinic to End Tech Abuse Thomas Kadri says can be “triggering or traumatic for survivors constantly having to revisit their abuse,” since they have to repeat their stories over and over again in court.
Ruth realized how artificial intelligence could help her in court shortly after learning about the generative AI chatbot ChatGPT, when it came out in November 2022. She started testing the tool by feeding it questions about her area of PhD research and was satisfied with the answers’ quality. That made her feel confident about using the tech to give her reliable information about the court system.
“I started asking it about terms that I didn’t understand that [my husband] would use in his filings, and it did a really good job,” she says. The alternative was Googling the terms and court cases he cited, which was incredibly time-consuming and still presented information written in “legalese.” ChatGPT came back with clear, concise answers to Ruth’s questions.
One challenge Ruth faced was learning how to write the best prompts for the technology. With trial and error, she figured out how to hone her prompts. For example, ChatGPT tries not to give legal advice and would answer some of Ruth’s questions saying it could not give her legal advice and she’d have to consult with an attorney, she says. Wording the question slightly differently, however, would yield a satisfactory answer. She also had to learn how to move away from generic responses toward those that applied more specifically to her case.
“‘Can you please write me a declaration about domestic violence?’ is going to be very generic,” Ruth says, “versus, ‘Can you write me 1,000 words, in first person, in legal language, about domestic violence in the case where the father is mentally unstable and has committed financial and verbal abuse?’ Then you’re going to get a much better output.”
Other prompts Ruth has posed to ChatGPT include: “Provide a list of questions a lawyer could ask in a divorce cross examination” and, “Can you explain California family law 3044 in basic English?”
It’s also important to know the limitations of this technology. A declaration for court, for instance, must be in a litigant’s own words. While Ruth has had ChatGPT write up declarations, she’s used them as “inspiration” for what she’s ultimately submitted in court (but she has been able to use ChatGPT’s responses directly for deposition questions). To prevent writer’s block while drafting these declarations, she’s used The Most Dangerous Writing App, which encourages speedily getting down a draft by promising to delete everything a user’s written if they pause for too long. “Dealing with the trauma of writing these declarations is incredibly hard,” she says, “so, if you’re having a hard time [this can help] get your first draft out.”
ChatGPT doesn’t just have the potential to lessen pro se litigants’ workloads—it could also, says Kadri, “fundamentally disrupt” how lawyers perform aspects of their jobs, cutting down on the time it takes to draft legal documents, for example. That could also mean increased affordability for litigants who then won’t have to pay for as much of a lawyer’s time.
TECHNOLOGY FOR ORGANIZING, CASE MONITORING, AND SECURITY
Ruth’s used more than just generative AI in her courtroom saga. AirTable has provided her with a major time-saver by helping to organize tasks and documents by various labels while keeping all of this information in the same, easily searchable digital space. Ruth has multiple, ongoing custody cases, making it easy to mix up which documents go with which case number. Through this organizational tool, she can tag each document with labels pertaining to their case number and other useful sorting information.
“You can put multiple tags, so there’s an art and science to it,” she says. “You have to set up the spreadsheet in a smart way.”
As a PhD student, Ruth has also used the website monitoring tool Wachete to keep tabs on government websites announcing new grants. It alerts her when there’s a significant change to a webpage she’s monitoring. She’s now using the technology to track changes to her case docket.
Ruth has spoken with other women dealing with abusive litigation whose husbands have submitted ex partes—motions or orders one party in a case presents that a judge can grant without the other party’s presence—“behind their backs and lying about serving them,” she says. With site monitoring technology, Ruth can ensure nothing happens in her cases without her knowledge.
Abusive litigation cases don’t just require good defense, but also effective offense. This can mean gathering and sorting compelling evidence to offer proof of an abuser’s harassment. Ruth recommends full page screen capture plug-ins to document social media harassment, which can include time stamps, in case an abuser later decides to delete incriminating posts.
It’s also important to watch out for new updates on tech devices, cautions Kadri, like the ability to edit iPhone messages that have already been sent. “When messages can be edited after the fact, that can create all sorts of concerns for survivors seeking to document and substantiate their abuse.” Screenshots can help with this, he adds, as can more mundane tools like Word documents, where survivors can keep logs of abuse offline.
Of course, abusers can also use social media and other apps to stalk their victims. Kadri’s witnessed vulnerabilities through the likes of iCloud accounts and phone plans survivors share with their abusive partners or exes. Even Google searches might give an abuser insight into their victim’s whereabouts, like if their name is listed on the website of a new job they’ve started.
Ruth’s spoken with another mother facing abusive litigation who uses the app DeleteMe to “scrub [her] footprint from the web,” she says. Other tools like Ghostery provide a similar service, while two-factor authentication apps secure digital accounts, from banking apps to social media.
SPREADING THE WORD ABOUT TECH VS. ABUSIVE LITIGATION
Some organizations have already begun using tech-enabled tools to help self-represented intimate partner violence survivors in court. Cramer’s Family Legal Care set up an audiovisual platform where self-represented litigants with cases in New York can have hour-long consultations with pro bono lawyers, supplemented by a live chat function through which the organization’s on-call staff attorney can answer questions.
“We have a digital justice program, where we’re trying to help people help themselves,” says Cramer. This includes online form fillables, through which pro se litigants can answer a few, simple questions to fill out court documents, like affidavits, that mightn’t otherwise be straightforward for someone without legal expertise. The organization has also set up “tech hubs” aimed at providing WiFi and devices for litigants who don’t have those resources at home—not uncommon for the often under-resourced survivors who go through high-volume family courts.
Organizations providing these services aren’t particularly common, however, so survivors are left filling in the gaps. Ruth shares the tech tools she’s been using as a pro se litigant with members of a local Facebook group called “One Mom’s Battle” aimed at abusive litigation survivors. When she first brought up ChatGPT and Airtable, she was surprised to learn that the other women in her group weren’t familiar. “It seemed obvious to me,” she says, “but that’s just because I’m a techie.”
However, since sharing a tutorial on what she calls “Divorcetech” with other mothers going through similar experiences to her own, Ruth says two have successfully used ChatGPT to assist with their cases against litigious abusers. She shared the tutorial while conducting a free, anonymous webinar about how she’s using these tech tools to help her in court. The several women who attended shared positive feedback, noting that tools like ChatGPT, Wachete, DeleteMe, and Airtable seemed “particularly valuable” for their cases. Meanwhile, she’s still left fighting her own legal battle, one that’s seemingly never-ending.
“I’m spending probably 20 or 25 hours a week dealing with litigation, trying to find pro bono lawyers, organizing all the documents—because there’s a bazillion documents—reading all his lengthy filings, writing my responses to his filings, going to court to file the documents . . . showing up for hearings, even super frivolous ones,” she says.
But she lights up when she talks about the technology she’s been able to employ in her fight and how she plans to spread the word to other moms. “I’m just taking the tools that are around and applying them to my use case of legal stuff.”
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