One thing I learned from observing domestic violence cases in family court is: Get Counsel. On average, for every ten cases I personally observed, one Domestic Violence Restraining Order was issued. One. Very, very few plaintiffs have an attorney present. Some defendants do. When an attorney is present in these cases, the outcome you want happens. Almost always.
That’s not the narrative many would have you believe. I’ve heard from gun advocates and men’s rights advocates and others that restraining orders are given out like candy. It’s true that TROs (Temporary Restraining Orders) have a slightly lower threshold, but they are temporary. There is actually a great burden of evidence that judges weigh, and with verbal or texted or emailed threats, it often comes down to which person to believe. And an attorney helps to organize and present and weigh a person’s words.
Recently, audio of a courtroom case became available, and while it is between neighbors and not domestic violence, the similarities in the courtroom are striking. Take a moment to listen to the audio of the back-and-forth in this courtroom. The judge asks how the plaintiffs know the texts are from the defendant. The attorney for the defendant is able to bring up doubt by suggesting that someone else could have taken the phone and texted the on-going threats. Despite a previous arrest, on-going threats in public places and over texts, coming onto their property with a loaded and cocked shotgun, the judge decided not to issue a restraining order. Three members of the family were shot to death by the plaintiff 33 hours after the judge dismissed the case saying, “I expect everybody to keep their cool leaving this courtroom.”
When in the midst of crisis, or when people KNOW they are telling the truth, they often think that will be enough. It’s not. Emotion, nervousness, being in the presence of an abuser, feeling intimidated by the process, and being treated as though your fear for your life is all in your head (also a typical technique of abusers, so of particular concern in a courtroom), can all come together to make a plaintiff appear unsure, confused, or dishonest — EVEN WHEN S/HE IS NOT.
There are resources for those who cannot afford an attorney or who feel unable to navigate the system properly. Contact the Family Justice Center in Essex County, the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence, Rachel Coalition Legal Services for legal contacts, or S.O.F.I.A. for referrals. For general research and information, take a look at the NJ State Police page with Domestic Violence Information and contacts by county. In addition, you have the right and ability to walk into ANY police station — whether it’s in your town or another — and make a complaint, ask for resources, or get information and help. Most NJ Police Precincts have trained officers and volunteers (Domestic Violence Response Team) who can help get you information you need.
As this terrifying and all too real situation between neighbors highlights the need for plaintiffs to bring an attorney, especially in domestic violence cases and abusive situations between family/friends. So please, Always get an attorney for court in domestic violence cases! Thanks.