The Process of Family Court Restraining Orders

The first step to understanding the process of obtaining a family law domestic violence restraining order is to understand that this process is quite different from the process involved when protective orders are automatically put into place by the courts in criminal matters. In criminal matters, the police and the court are empowered to issue “automatic” temporary restraining orders. Evidentiary hearings are not conducted before these restraining orders are put into place. Consequently, in criminal courts the protected party does not need to be a part of the process.

In many instances, victims of domestic violence need to obtain a restraining order in family court, for example, where the criminal court restraining order is not adequate to deal with issues such as child support, spousal support, or custody and visitation. In other instances, a victim of domestic violence may need the protection of the family court where criminal charges were not filed or have been dismissed.

Unlike criminal matters, the protected party seeking a family law restraining order has to file his or her own papers, attend at least two hearings, and be able to conduct an evidentiary hearing. In addition, the Petitioner in a family court restraining order matter is responsible for ensuring that the Respondent has been served prior to the hearing.

At the hearing, Petitioners seeking a family law restraining order must be able to present a case, and convince the judge by a preponderance of the evidence that domestic violence was committed. Thus, a basic understanding of what constitutes domestic violence is essential. In some instances, the matter does not qualify as a domestic violence case, because the parties do not have the right type of relationship. Instead, the case may be filed as a “Civil Harassment” matter, which involves its own unique process and standard of proof.

The hearing for a permanent restraining order is essentially a mini trial. At the hearing, all of the rules of evidence apply, and both parties have the right to a meaningful opportunity to present evidence and cross examine witnesses. Preparing for a family court restraining order hearing should include, composing direct and cross examination questions, and when possible, gathering of physical and demonstrative evidence. In this high tech age that we live in, e-mail messages, voice messages, and surveillance video are frequently introduced into evidence to prove or disprove a case. Police reports are also allowed into evidence as an exception to the hearsay rule.

Thus, litigants should attempt to obtain police reports, whenever possible, as they can be very persuasive to the judge. People within the legal profession recognize the serious consequences involved with the issuance of permanent restraining orders. Given that restraining orders typically impose significant limitations on a party’s liberty, and can affect a party’s ability to find or maintain employment, these matters are being taken more seriously by the courts in recent years.

Courts have become more skeptical of the requests that are made for restraining orders and hold the moving party to his or her burden. Indeed, the days of family courts “rubber stamping” restraining orders appear to be coming to an end. Consequently, it is incumbent upon any person who is faced with having to be a part of this process to do his or her homework before entering the courtroom.