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John Della Rocca Oct. 1, 2020

In Pennsylvania, a Protection From Abuse (“PFA”) order court gives a victim and/or victim’s children “relief” for a period of up to three years (for final orders). A person can file for a PFA order from the court for themselves, or on behalf of their minor children. A PFA order typically describes various types of protections afforded to the victim. For example, a PFA order can make it illegal for the abuser to have no contact with the victim or, in the event contact is allowed, forbids the abuser from having to harass or abusive with the victim and/or the victim’s children. It may also order the abuser to return personal property or forfeit firearms. If an abuser violates a PFA order, he or she may be subject to criminal charges.

A victim of abuse may file for a PFA order against an intimate partner or a family member, such as spouses or ex-spouses; domestic partners; same-sex partners; parents; children (biological or adopted); persons related by blood or marriage (including brothers/sisters); and current or former sexual/intimate/romantic partners. If the relationship is not one of the above categories, the court will not issue a PFA.

Although the Pennsylvania PFA Act is State law, the process for getting a PFA varies by county. The general process is as follows:

1. The victim (“plaintiff”/”petitioner”) goes to the county courthouse to fill out a petition. The forms request victims to explain why they are seeking protection and to describe the abuse they’ve suffered. The victim will also indicate on the form what types of protections they are seeking, for example, no contact by the abuser or a request for the abuser to relinquish their firearms.

2. A judge reviews the petition and may have some additional questions for the plaintiff. At this time, a judge may grant or deny a temporary PFA. A date for a final hearing will be scheduled within 10 business days. If a temporary PFA is granted, it provides protection for the victim through the date of the final hearing.

3. Next, the local sheriff’s office will deliver a copy of the petition, temporary PFA order, and notice of the final hearing to the defendant.

4. At the time of the final PFA hearing, the plaintiff/victim and defendant/abuser both have the opportunity to come before the judge. Both are allowed to have attorneys represent them at the hearing. A domestic violence advocate may also accompany the victim. If both the plaintiff and defendant agree on the terms of an order, this will be shared with the judge who will make it official. This is known as a PFA by consent agreement. If either party does not agree, both the victim and the abuser will go in front of the judge to share their accounts. The judge will make a determination based on the testimony and/or evidence he or she receives. The judge can then order a final PFA for up to a period of three years.

In New Jersey, PFA’s are generally referred to as Final Restraining Orders. Some of the major differences between a PFA and FRO are outlined below.

In New Jersey, a Final Restraining Order (F.R.O.) is permanent. The entry of a FRO against someone remains “of record” and can negatively impact their lives in many ways. When a final restraining order is entered, a defendant is forever barred from owning or carrying a weapon, may face professional license forfeiture or security clearance revocation, and may be prevented from doing such things as teaching or coaching a youth sports teams. The consequences can be severe. When representing a defendant in a Jersey domestic violence matter, it is important that the client understands just how serious the matter can be. It can be for life!

Civil Restraints are a way to resolve a domestic violence case without a trial or the entry of a formal restraining order. Civil Restraints do not expire and will only be dismissed with the consent of the victim or by application of the defendant under a very strict set of standards.

For this reason, parties may see it as mutually beneficial to dismiss the formal restraining order and enter into “civil restraints.” If they are willing to do so, the parties negotiate (through their attorneys or a third party) specific terms by which they will abide. This can include a “no contact” provision, limited contact by email or text message, and restricted contact only for specific reasons (such as the children). This may also include specific prohibitions against being at certain locations (including the home), and against future harassment or other such offensive contacts.

It is important to note, however, that while civil restraints are binding and enforceable and everyone is expected to abide by the agreement, they are not enforceable in the same manner as a restraining order. A violation of an active restraining order is a criminal offense. It is punishable by fines and possible imprisonment and the police will arrest a defendant when a violation occurs. A violation of civil restraints is not likely to result in consequences unless a motion is filed with the court to enforce the order. At that time, a Judge has the power to impose penalties, including financial or other sanctions. While jailing the violating party is an option, it is rare.

Nothing prevents a victim of domestic violence from filing for a new restraining order if a new act occurs. As such, civil restraints are a useful option for less severe domestic violence circumstances where the parties can benefit from a “cooling off” period and where the entry of a final restraining order may financially or otherwise devastate the entire family. This option, however, must be employed with caution and with a clear understanding that the victim is losing the full protections of the Domestic Act.

Do You Need to Get a PFA or Defend Against One?

If so, you need to hire an experienced attorney that can advance your case, give you a voice and protect your rights. At the Law Office of John Della Rocca, we handle PFA and FRO matters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and have a proven track record of success. If you need help, call me now!

Some of the above information and statistics have been sourced from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV).