If you have experienced domestic violence from a spouse, former spouse, household member (current or past), dating partner, or parent of a shared child, you can still get a temporary restraining order (TRO) at your local police station. Police stations are never closed for the purpose of issuing a domestic violence temporary restraining order. For information on how to get a temporary restraining order please read How to Get a Restraining Order. On the other hand, temporary protective orders for sexual assault cases (TPO’s) can only be requested electronically. For more information about a TPO, please see Sexual Assault Survivors Protection Act (SASPA)—Protection for Victims. For guidance on the current, temporary procedure to request a TPO from the court, please see https://njcourts.gov/notices/2020/n200403a.pdf?c=3vY.
While the courts are closed, some counties are holding hearings remotely . Having a final restraining order hearing remotely involves the same preparation for trial as before, but with some additional considerations. To see our article on preparing your case under normal circumstances, please see Preparing for a Domestic Violence Trial. If your case is scheduled for a final restraining order hearing while the courts are still closed (see www.njcourtsonline.gov for the most recent announcements), you should receive a call or email from the court about your ability to participate in a remote hearing. The court will want to know if you own a laptop or a desktop computer, if it is connected to the internet, and if it has a working web camera. It is not recommended to use a device where you are on a limited data plan as the hearing could use a lot of data. If you have all of these things in place, the court will likely expect you to participate in a hearing remotely .
Many courts are using apps called Zoom and Microsoft Teams to have remote hearings. We recommend that you practice using Zoom or Microsoft Teams before the actual hearing. The majority of courts are using Zoom. You can go to the website (www.zoom.com) on your laptop/desktop. There is also a Zoom app for your phone, but we do not recommend participating in a hearing on your phone. If you have a computer, it would be better for you to learn how to use Zoom on the computer . You should think about where your equipment will be located. Also, take into consideration what your background is and how close you will be to the web camera. Practicing with Zoom will get you familiar with how other participants appear and how to use its tools (muting, minimizing, etc.). You should also practice silencing your cell phone as well as your computer. Remember that the other party will also see your background, which can be a safety issue if you are trying to keep your location a secret.
What the court may not specifically ask you, but you need to let the court know is whether it is safe or practical for you to participate in this kind of hearing. If a remote hearing will let an abuser find out where you are, then it may not be safe. If you have children in the home, and you do not have someone to watch them, then it may not be practical. Consider whether you have anyone who can watch your children during the time of the hearing. There is no guarantee when a hearing will start or how long it will take. If you are able to get childcare, but only for a set period of time, you should let the court know.
If you share your home, is there somewhere that you can be alone for the hearing? If you are able to be in a closed room, will the other people in your home be able to hear your conversation? If so, it may be possible to put on some music in the background so the other people in your home cannot hear you. (You will want to make sure the background music cannot be heard on the video though.)
Consider the evidence you plan to show the judge . Most courts are asking that parties email evidence to the court sometime before the hearing date. This means you must organize this evidence in such a way that it can be emailed. If using more than one piece of evidence, the evidence should be properly labelled and catalogued. You don’t want the court to be confused by your evidence. Label each piece of evidence separately. When a file is saved to be attached to the email, the file name should be descriptive. It is a good idea to describe in the title what the actual evidence is (e.g., “Text message from March 24, 2020”). Additionally, you can name each piece of evidence as P-1, P-2, P-3, etc. so the court can easily know what you are referring to during the trial. In the email to the court, include a list of your evidence. This will help the court understand what is being presented and ensure that all of the evidence was received. There may be some evidence that cannot be sent electronically (e.g., a broken phone). In this case, if a photograph of the item can be sent, that would be helpful. You could also hold the item up to the camera during the hearing to show to the court.
If it will not be possible for you to show the court all the evidence you want to because of the remote hearing, you must let the court know. That might be a reason the court would wait to have your hearing until it can be in person. When considering how you will prove your case to the court, think about possible witnesses. If there is a witness you would like the court to hear from, they also need to have a computer that can connect to the court. If the witness lives in your home, make sure they are not also the person you expect to watch your children during the hearing. Also, the witness should not hear your testimony to the judge and should be able to be alone while testifying.
Safety planning is also important for you at every stage of this process. We strongly encourage you to reach out to your local domestic violence agency. It is important to remember that everything you say or show during the remote hearing is not only being recorded, but can be seen and heard by everyone on the hearing (including the other party).
Be sure to think through all of the possible outcomes of the hearing. You need to have a plan if the TRO is dismissed. If applicable, remember that the other party could return home if that happens. You need to think through what that will mean for you and your family’s safety. If the FRO is entered, and you share children, pick-up and drop-off arrangements need to be thought through a little differently, at least for the immediate future. Consider curbside pick-up and drop-off, or some way that you can follow social distancing rules.
For specific advice on your legal matter, reach out to the Domestic Violence Representation Project at Legal Services of New Jersey. You can apply for an intake at 1-888-576-5529 or online at www.lsnjlawhotline.org. To find information about your local domestic violence agency, please visit www.njcedv.org.