Family Law and COVID-19: Protections from Domestic Violence
New Jersey, like most of the United States, has been given “stay-at-home” orders designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect the general public. However, to a victim of domestic violence who is trapped in perpetual proximity to their abuser, these “stay-at-home” orders actually equate to the notion of a lose-lose decision: Stay at home and be abused, or leave home and expose themselves to a deadly virus and a world that has largely closed its doors.
Serious domestic violence often leaves victims feeling helpless, but the additional restrictions and general anxiety from the current pandemic may be too much to bear. However, there are protections available to victims.
New Jersey has the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, which allows a victim of domestic violence to obtain a restraining order preventing further contact, communication, and domestic violence from their abuser. A violation of a restraining order is a criminal act, subjecting the abuser to arrest, prosecution, jail time and other forms of penalty.
While it is currently difficult to gain access to the court system, all police departments in New Jersey have the capability of placing victims in contact with emergency judges who can issue temporary restraining orders and place necessary distance between victims and abusers. This can be done at the police station or by calling 911 and having the police officers facilitate the process from your location.
The initial restraining order against an abuser is deemed “temporary” and is subject to a subsequent hearing, where a judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey will determine if a “final” restraining order should be issued. In most circumstances, final restraining orders in New Jersey are permanent.
Normally, it takes 7 to 10 days from the time a victim obtains the temporary restraining order to the subsequent hearing. However, the court closings associated with COVID-19 have delayed scheduling substantially. Until the hearing is eventually scheduled, the temporary restraining order remains in full effect to protect the victim.
This delay can cause other issues associated with custody and parenting time issues in matters where the victim and abuser have children together. It may cause more complex issues if an abuser has a child from another relationship, who may otherwise have to relocate from their abusive household perhaps into a riskier situation that exposes them to contracting COVID-19.
While domestic violence restraining order trials are already complicated and require careful consideration and preparation, these hearings are likely to become more complex as they are likely to be held virtually through online platforms such as Zoom. This will cause legal challenges, such as being able to effectively present exhibits while remaining in compliance with the Rules of Court and the prevailing law.
In many cases, an abuser may be ordered to pay for the victim’s legal costs. If you find yourself in these types of situations, it is more critical now than ever to have effective and careful advocacy from experienced legal counsel.