How does a Protection from Abuse Petition Work in the Lehigh Valley?

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If you are reading this, then, its likely that you were in a fight with someone you love.  This fight may have encompassed anything from heated words to an actual fight.  Likely the police were called and now one party doesn't want anything to do with the other.  When this happens, a party can seek a Protection from Abuse Order or a "PFA"

The party who requests the PFA is known as the petitioner and the party who may be retrained from seeing the other is called the respondent.  While the state has provided some general guidance on how PFAs are to issued by the court, you should know that each county does it differently and often times these local rules of practice are just things that the attorneys and judges know rather than something that was ever actually written down.  These are rules of habit and custom and its important to have an attorney who knows how each court house operates.

BASIC INFORMATION

Will the Person getting a PFA have a Criminal Record?

No.  In a civil domestic violence action, you are asking the court to protect you from the person abusing you.  You are not asking the court to send that person to jail for committing a crime.  However, if the abuser violates the civil court order, s/he may be sent to jail for the violation.  In a civil case, you are the person bringing the case against the abuser and (in most circumstances), you have the right to withdraw (drop) the case if you want to.  

Protection from abuse orders in Pennsylvania part of the civil law system.

What is the legal definition of domestic violence in Pennsylvania?

This section defines abuse for the purposes of getting a protection from abuse order.  Abuse is the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members

  1.   Attempting to cause or causing (with or without a deadly weapon):
  • odily injury or serious bodily injury;
  • Rape;
  • Involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (oral sex, anal sex, vaginal or anal penetration with a foreign object performed under force or the threat of force, or while unconscious);
  • Sexual assault or statutory sexual assault;
  • Aggravated indecent assault (vaginal or anal penetration with a finger or other body part under force or threat of force, or while unconscious);
  • Indecent assault (touching a person’s intimate parts for the purposes of arousal without consent, under force or threat of force, or while the person is unconscious);
  • Incest; or
  1.  False imprisonment;
  2.  Physical or sexual abuse of a child; or
  3. Engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.

What is a protection from abuse order (PFA)?

A protection from abuse order is a paper that is signed by a judge and tells the abuser to stop the abuse or face serious legal consequences. It offers civil legal protection from domestic violence to both female and male victims.

How can a protection from abuse order protect me?

A protection from abuse order can offer the following protections for you and your children. It can:

  • order the abuser not to abuse, harass, or stalk you, your relatives or your minor children;
  • order the abuser to be removed from the home where you both live and grant you possession of the home; Note: Under certain circumstances, if you are living in a home where the abuser is the only owner or tenant, the judge can still remove the abuser from the home or, with your consent, order him/her to provide you with suitable alternate housing.
  • award temporary custody or temporary visitation rights of your minor children;
  • order the abuser to pay financial support (including medical bills, health insurance, rent or mortgage payments) to you or your children;
  • prohibit the abuser from having any contact with you or minor children, including staying away from your or your child's place of employment or business or school;
  • order the abuser to turn any of his/her firearms, other weapons, and ammunition to the sheriff or police, if s/he used them or threatened to use them during the abuse, and prohibit him/her from getting additional firearms;
  • order the abuser to pay you for reasonable losses resulting from the abuse (this may include the cost of medical/ dental care, relocation and moving expenses, attorney and counseling costs, as well as loss of earnings or support); and
  • grant any other appropriate relief you request.

Whether or not a judge orders any or all of the above depends on the facts of your case.

 

How much does it cost?

You will not be required to pay any fees when you file a petition for a protection from abuse order.  If you are granted a PFA, the judge may require the defendant to pay all the fees of filing and service as well as an additional $100, which goes towards enforcement of domestic violence laws.

 

In which county can I file for a protection from abuse order?

You can file a petition in the county where you live (permanently or temporarily) or work, in any county where the abuser can be served (i.e., where s/he lives or works), or in the county where the abuse took place.  However, if you are going to be asking the judge to remove the abuser from the home you share, you MUST file the petition in the county where your home is located.

What types of protection from abuse orders are there? How long do they last?

In Pennsylvania, there are a few different types of protection from abuse orders (“PFA”).  The type of PFA you may initially get depends on whether the judge believes you need protection or not.

Emergency Order

If you need immediate protection when the courts are closed (such as on a weekend, late night or holiday), you can call your local police department or 911.  They will tell you which magisterial district judge is on-call that night, and provide you with the telephone number where you can reach her or him.  If the judge thinks you are in immediate danger, s/he may grant you an emergency order.  An emergency order will only last until the next business day.  An emergency order is designed to give you protection until a court opens and you have a chance to ask for an ex parte temporary PFA.  If you do not go to court on the next business day to apply for an ex parte temporary PFA, your emergency order will expire.

Ex Parte Temporary Order

When you ask the court for a PFA, a judge will give you an ex parte temporary PFA if s/he finds that you or your minor children are in danger of further domestic abuse and need immediate protection.  "Ex parte" means that the judge will make this decision based only on the information you provide, without the abuser being in court.  This temporary order will last until your full court hearing for the final PFA where the abuser has an opportunity to testify and present evidence.  A hearing is usually scheduled within 10 business days.  If the abuser has a gun or weapon, be sure to tell this to the judge when applying for your ex parte temporary PFA so that the judge can order the weapon to be immediately turned over to the sheriff.

FINAL PFA ORDER

After a final hearing where both parties are present to tell their side of the story, a court may grant a final PFA.  Final PFAs are valid for up to three years.

Who can get a protection from abuse order (PFA)?

If you are an adult (person 18 or over) or emancipated minor, you can seek legal protection from acts of domestic abuse done to you or your minor child by a family or household member, which includes:

  • your husband or ex-husband;
  • your wife or ex-wife;
  • a person who lives or lived with you as a spouse;
  • your brother or sister;
  • your parent or child;
  • a family member related to you by blood or marriage;
  • a current or former sexual or intimate partner; and
  • someone you have a child in common with.

Can I get a protection from abuse order against a same-sex partner?

Yes.

Can I get a protection from abuse order if I am a minor?

Yes.   However, as a minor* (a person under the age of 18), you will need a parent, adult household member or guardian ad litem to file the protection from abuse order on your behalf.

STEPS FOR GETTING A PFA ORDER

Step 1: Get the petition at the courthouse.

You can file your petition for a protection from abuse order with the Court of Common Pleas in the county where you live (permanently or temporarily), where you work, in any county where the abuser can be served (i.e., where s/he lives or works), or in the county where the abuse took place.  However, if you are going to be asking the judge to remove the abuser from the home you share, you MUST file the petition in the county where your home is located.  Remember to bring some form of identification (a driver's license or a picture I.D.) with you to court.  You may also want to call the courthouse in advance (if you can) to see if there are certain times that petitions are presented to the judge.  If you come after the scheduled time-slots, your petition may be referred to a magisterial judge for an emergency order and then you would have to return to courthouse the next day to file for the temporary PFA order.

At the courthouse, the prothonotary will provide you with the forms that you need to file.  The prothonotary may assist you with filing the papers but will not be able to give you legal advice.  If you have any questions, this would be a good time to contact Attorney Bench, since filling out a PFA petition with the correct information is the critical first step.

Step 2: Fill out the forms

You will need to fill out the necessary forms including a protection from abuse (PFA) petition.  On the petition, you will be the plaintiff and the abuser will be the defendant.

Read the protection from abuse petition carefully and ask questions to the courthouse staff if you don’t understand something. Describe in detail how the abuser (defendant) injured or threatened you.  Explain when and where the abuse or threats occurred if he used or threatened you with a weapon, be sure to include that. Write about the most recent incident of violence, using descriptive language (e.g. slapping, hitting, grabbing, choking, threatening, etc.) that fits your situation.  Be specific.  Include details and dates, if possible.

Do not sign the form until you have shown it to a prothonotary.  You might need to sign the form in front of a notary or a judge at the courthouse.

Step 3: A judge will review your petition and may grant you an ex parte temporary PFA.

Your petition will be given to the judge.  If the judge believes that you or your children are in immediate danger, s/he may sign a temporary order.  This order will stay in effect until the full hearing is heard (within ten business days) at which time you can be granted a final PFA.  Copies of the temporary order and the petition you filed will be given to you.  You will need to give a copy of the petition and the order to the sheriff so that it can be served on the abuser.  You will also have to complete the sheriff’s service form.  The service form gives the sheriff the information necessary to notify the defendant of the court hearing.

In some counties, someone other than the sheriff may serve the defendant.  The prothonotary will be able to tell you this.  Remember to keep a copy of the temporary order with you at all times.

Step 4: The hearing

Whether a judge grants you a temporary order or not, you may be given a court date for a court hearing on your petition within ten business days (assuming that your petition is not dismissed).  The hearing will be in front of a judge, who will decide whether or not to give you a final PFA.


It is very important that you attend the court hearing.  If you do not go to the hearing, your temporary order will expire and you will have to start the process over.  If you absolutely cannot attend, contact the prothonotary immediately and ask how you can get a "continuance" for a later court date.


If the abuser does not attend the hearing, the court may issue a "default judgment" against him/her and you may receive a final protection from abuse order in his/her absence. The judge also may decide to pick a new hearing date to give the abuser another chance to come to court. If this happens, be sure to ask the judge to extend your temporary order if you have one.


At the hearing, you will have the chance to testify in court and present evidence and witnesses to prove the abuse and harassment you have experienced. The abuser will also be allowed to be present evidence and testify in the hearing to defend himself/herself.  You may want to get a lawyer to represent you at that hearing, especially if you think the abuser will have one. 

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