Passion for Family Law Begins in Villanova Law’s Civil Justice Clinic
When Kayla Fattell ’21 began her clinical experience as a student attorney in Villanova’s Civil Justice Clinic, she had never worked with an actual client facing a legal issue, and she had certainly never represented a client in a hearing. Fast forward less than four months later, Fattell found herself successfully petitioning on behalf of her client before a judge on a life-changing immigration case.
One of the in-house legal clinics at Villanova Law, the Civil Justice Clinic provides pro bono legal services to low-income people in the Philadelphia area who face a variety of civil disputes involving family law, housing, employment and government benefits, and who otherwise would not be able to afford a lawyer. Villanova Law students, like Fattell, work closely with clients, serving as the primary advocate throughout their case. At the same time, they hone their legal skills, gain invaluable experience and earn credit for their law degree.
“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I was in middle school, and I always knew I wanted to do family law,” said Fattell, a native of Point Pleasant, NJ and a graduate of Syracuse University. “There was no other path I was going to take. I wanted to help people and make a positive change in their lives. When I was a 3L at Villanova Law working as a student attorney in the Civil Justice Clinic, I finally had the opportunity to work with a mother and child who needed my help to build a better life for themselves. It was the most rewarding experience I had in law school.”
Fattell’s client first came to the Civil Justice Clinic for legal assistance in spring 2020. She was a young, single mother who had immigrated to the United States from Honduras to escape poverty. She had left her daughter behind in Honduras with her grandparents so she could find work in the U.S. to support her daughter and family. Eventually, the child’s grandfather passed away, leaving her daughter without stable care in her home country. In 2019, the child came to the U.S. with family members who were sent back to Honduras by immigration officials. Fortunately, the child joined her mother in Philadelphia, where she was able to enroll in school and begin adjusting to life in the U.S.
After living in the U.S. for nearly a year with her daughter, the client sought to obtain sole legal and physical custody of her daughter, who was now 14. With the help of Villanova Law students in the Civil Justice Clinic, she applied for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) for her daughter. SIJS would provide her protection to stay in the country, and serve as the first step to becoming a lawful permanent U.S. resident and citizen.
Fattell began working with this client and her daughter in January 2021 to prepare for the SIJS hearing in April. Because neither spoke any English, translators helped Fattell interview her clients extensively. She learned their family history and built a rapport and trust with them before the hearing.
“The most difficult aspect of the case was contacting the child’s father in Honduras,” said Fattell. “He wasn’t listed on the birth certificate, had previously denied he was the father and was not involved in the girl’s life. In order to properly file for SIJS in the U.S., he had to be notified and sign off on the mother’s desire to have sole custody of the child in a foreign country. After trying many different avenues, I was finally able to contact him through WhatsApp.”
Fattell spent many hours preparing her clients for the hearing. She walked through the proceeding process with them and rehearsed questions in advance to help them feel comfortable answering. Fattell also worked closely with her advisor, Deeya Haldar, Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Civil Justice Clinic. “She was very helpful,” said Fattell. “She helped calm my nerves and ran through mock trial scenarios with me. This was my first time representing a client in a courtroom, arguing in front of a judge and having a real client interaction.”
A judge in Philadelphia County heard the case. Despite not having official proof of the child’s father, the judge made a finding of paternity and immediately granted the client sole physical and legal custody of her daughter. She also found that it was in the child’s best interest to stay in Philadelphia with her mother, as there was no one to care for her in Honduras.
“My clients were ecstatic,” said Fattell. “They were very grateful for my help and the outcome of the case was really going to have a positive impact on their lives.”
Following graduation from Villanova Law, Fattell secured a prestigious judicial clerkship with the New Jersey Superior Court. As a judicial law clerk, Fattell supports judges and provides a variety of tasks, including legal research, writing draft orders, preparing the judge for trials, and attending hearings and trials. After her clerkship position, Fattell hopes to work full-time at a family law firm.