Walking into an In-Person Domestic Violence Hearing

By Andrea McGauley

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Last week Christy and I had the opportunity to go to an in-person hearing for a domestic violence case with our client. While this was my first time in court, Christy’s a seasoned regular, and so here I am able to compare our experiences to show what has changed in today’s climate.

Entering the Court House

With the Covid-19 pandemic raging on, a domestic violence case is the only type of family law that might be held in person. And if you find yourself in the situation where you are being summoned to court, you might be wondering what is standard and what has changed?

Customarily, there is always a line of police officers and a metal detector to greet you as you walk through the door. Much like at the airport, your coat and belt must come off and, along with any personal belongings, everything must be placed onto a conveyor belt for review. As you walk through the machine, any beeping will similarly lead to extra scrutiny from someone holding a smaller detector.

What has changed is that, for our court, only one person at a time was allowed to enter the building and walk through the line. This varied slightly depending on if you brought another person with you, but generally the officers remained strict for this form of social distancing. Next, every person was screened for Covid symptoms with the usual questions: Have you experienced any symptoms of coughing, cold, sore throat, fever, flu, etc… in the past two weeks? Have you been exposed to anyone with these symptoms in the last two weeks? Have you been exposed to any person who has tested positive for Covid in the last two weeks? Have you yourself tested positive for Covid in the last two weeks? And so on. They took our names and information on a sheet that was then presumably filed away for if a person is found to be Covid positive in the future.

It should also be noted that they limited how many people could be in the building at a given time as well. As our case started at 10 am, and, despite the cold weather, we weren’t allowed to even enter the line until 9:40 am.

What About my Actual Domestic Violence Hearing?

Once inside, Christy and I were able to enter a conference room with our client to discuss last minute information. This is where we waited until being called into the courtroom. Despite a two-day hold up of cases due to snowy weather, the courtroom was rather bare. On each bench were either two pieces of blue tape marked on the far ends, or one piece in the middle. Taken as a whole, this meant that no two people were within close proximity to another to the right or left, in front or behind. While usually an attorney and client would be seated beside each other, this layout meant that Christy and I sat behind our client, a good space apart.

The Judge went through the names on his 10 am docket alphabetically, calling the last names of the petitioner and respondent one by one. When our client’s name was announced, they went to their appropriate table, and the opposing counsel went to theirs on the other side. In front of them, the Judge and his clerk were seated behind thick, clear, tall plexiglass shields. The Judge asked the petitioner if they would like to continue with the case, and they said yes. And so we were all seated again to be called once more after the Judge had finished his preliminary assessment of each case on the docket.

For many people, there was no attorney seated beside them, and they rose and walked to the front of the courtroom on their own. For many cases, only one person was there to stand before the Judge, either as a petitioner or respondent. If they were the petitioner, and the respondent did not show up because they were not served their notice, they were told that the hearing was to be rescheduled for one month later. If they were the respondent, and their petitioner did not arrive, then, baring serious cause for absence, the case was dismissed.

One petitioner, when they stood before the Judge, informed him that they were dropping the order. The Judge asked them questions to assure that this was a fully informed and uncoerced decision, and then the case was dismissed. One person nearly had their case dismissed because it did not fit the criteria for a protective order. The case was against an ex-partner, and, as they had not had a sexual relationship within a year, it was almost thrown out. It was only because they lived together that it was considered.

When the Judge returned to the cases who wanted to be heard, Christy and our client were again called before him, along with the opposing party. The Judge was calm, efficient, and polite as he listened to each party respond to his questioning and plead their case. It was eventually determined that there was no basis for a protective order. The respondent did not abuse or threaten to abuse the petitioner in any way, including a lack of evidence of stalking. The Judge thoroughly went through the issue of law, and determined his finding based on these facts. I am told that this can be a long process in some instances, but in our case it was rather quick.

After a Case is Done

Once the order was dismissed, both parties exited the courtroom and awaited the official paperwork. An officer led us to where we could wait, another socially distanced bench, and before long he returned with a piece of paper stating the Judge’s ruling. After this, both parties were free to go. The petitioner had a right to appeal for up to 30 days, and after that time the case was completely finished.

 

Overall, the hearing was short and to the point, with social distancing being conducted as much as possible. Having an attorney can make a huge difference in helping a person know how to respond to a domestic violence order, as well as how to conduct oneself in court. Christy was able to both prepare our client before court, and aid them through courtroom proceedings in a smooth and confident manner.

For myself, this may be my first and last time inside a courtroom for a good amount of time, and it was a treat to experience one aspect of how the legal system is adjusting to unprecedented times. I wish every courthouse employee health and safety through this pandemic as they work extremely hard to serve justice. And I hope that this blog post can help ease nerves by giving an idea of what a domestic violence hearing is like in the time of Covid-19.