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Domestic Violence: Can the Legal System Help Protect Me?

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Learn the definition of domestic violence, how you can protect yourself and your family by getting a protection order or restraining order, and where to get help. #3700EN

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What is domestic violence?

It is a pattern of physically and/or emotionally abusive behavior used to control someone with whom the abuser has an intimate or family relationship.

How does the law define domestic violence?

Washington law says domestic violence happens when someone does one of these:

  • Hits, assaults (including sexual assault), or harms you physically in any way

  • Causes you to fear immediate physical harm or assault

  • Stalks you

The person causing the harm or threatening you must be one of these:

  • A family member

  • A spouse or domestic partner

  • A former spouse or former domestic partner

  • Someone you live with now or used to live with who you have or had a dating relationship with

  • Someone you have a child with

  • Someone age 16 or older who you live with now or used to live with and have or had a dating relationship with

  • Someone 16 or older with whom you have or had a dating relationship

What are some examples of things that can cause fear of immediate harm?

  • restraining your freedom of movement

  • stalking you

  • destroying your property

  • making verbal threats to hurt you

  • making threats by text or social media

*No one has the right to threaten or hurt you. The abuser’s relationship to you does not matter.

How can I protect myself and/or my children right now?

If you are currently a domestic violence victim, get help from the local domestic violence shelter. Shelters provide safety planning, temporary shelter, legal advocacy, counseling, and other services. To find the program nearest you, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.7233.

Can the civil legal system help?

There are different types of court orders that may help protect you and your children. The attached table explains:

  • the types of orders available

  • who may get them

  • how to get them

  • how much they cost

  • other important information  

Can I get an Order for Protection?

  Yes, if you have been assaulted or threatened by:

  • a relative

  • someone you live with

  • a spouse or ex-spouse

  • a domestic partner or ex-domestic partner

  • someone you are dating or have dated

When you ask for an Order for Protection, you are the Petitioner.  The person you want the court to restrain is the Respondent. 

How do I get an Order for Protection?

*You do not need a lawyer.

There is no fee to file for this. The forms are available in District, Municipal, and Superior Courts statewide. Check with your local court first. They may have their own forms you must use. You can also use our do-it-yourself interview program, Washington Forms Online, to fill out the forms.

*Are you a Tribal Member or living in a Tribal Community or on a Reservation?  You may have the choice of filing for a protection order in a State Court or a Tribal Court.  Each Tribe's code and/or process may differ.  Contact the Tribal Court to learn more. The forms state courts use may not work in Tribal Court. 

When filling out a Petition for an Order for Protection, you must list facts showing that Respondent has committed acts of domestic violence against you and/or your children. They do not have to be recent if the past domestic violence makes you still afraid.

Can I get the Order immediately?

Yes. You can get a Temporary Order for Protection immediately when you fill out the petition and a judge signs it. The sheriff then gives the Respondent a copy of the Order.

You will have a hearing for a permanent order two weeks later. Some courts call this a “return hearing.” The clerk of the court where you file will tell you where the judge will hold the return hearing.

What happens at the return hearing?

Respondent can give their side of the story. If Respondent does not show up at the hearing, and you cannot prove they got enough notice of the hearing, ask the judge to extend the emergency order until Respondent can get notice and you can schedule another hearing. Otherwise, you will not have protection until the court enters another order.

What does an Order for Protection do?

  • It can order Respondent to stop contacting you.

  • It can order Respondent to stop threatening, harassing, stalking, or bothering you or your children.

  • It can order Respondent not to harass you in-person, or by phone, mail, or electronically.

  • It can keep Respondent from your home, work, school, or your children’s school or daycare.

  • It can ban Respondent from any contact with any children or pets you have together, or set a visitation schedule.

  • It can order Respondent to go to counseling or have a drug or alcohol evaluation.

  • It can award you important personal belongings or a vehicle.

How do I use the Order for Protection?

Carry a certified copy of your order with you at all times. You must call the police to report a violation.

Will it protect me outside my county?

Yes. They enter your Order for Protection in a statewide computer system. It is enforceable statewide and in other states.

I already have an Order of Protection from Canada.  Do I need to get another one here?

No.  Starting July 28, 2019, Law enforcement here can enforce your Canadian order.  You should register it with a Washington court.

When will the Order for Protection end (expire)?

It lasts either for a fixed period or permanently. If it protects children, it can only last, at the longest, one year. You can ask the court to renew the order before it expires. The court must renew your order unless Respondent can prove they are no longer a risk to you and/or your children.

What if Respondent violates the Order?

This is a crime. The police must enforce your order and arrest Respondent.

What is a Restraining Order?

You can ask for this if you have filed a family law action such as

  • divorce

  • parentage

  • legal separation

  • non-parent custody petition

  • petition for a parenting plan

  • petition to change a parenting plan

Courts enter Restraining Orders at first on a temporary basis. They may become permanent at the end of the case.

What can a restraining order do?

It can:

  • Order Respondent to stay away from you and the children

  • Exclude Respondent (order Respondent to stay away) from your home, workplace, daycare, or school

  • Order Respondent not to take the children out of the court’s jurisdiction

  • Order other restraints as appropriate

The police must enforce a Restraining Order the same as a Protection Order. If you report that Respondent violates the order, the police must arrest Respondent.

What is an Anti-Harassment Order?

It applies

  • when Respondent has seriously alarmed, annoyed, or harassed you

  • generally when you were not married or living together, and have no children together

Can I get an Anti-Harassment Order?  

Yes, if you can prove both of these:

  • Respondent’s conduct would cause any reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress

  • Respondent’s conduct was intentional or willful and served no legitimate or legal purpose

This is different from domestic violence. It may not have the same penalties.

*You usually file for an Anti-Harassment Order in district court. Use Antiharassment Forms and Instructions.

What is stalking?

State law defines “stalking” a few ways. Stalking as a crime happens when all these are true:

  • Someone intentionally is harassing or following you.

  • You fear that they want to hurt you or someone else, or someone’s property. Your fear must be reasonable under the circumstances.

  • The stalker either
    1. Means to frighten, intimidate, or harass you OR
    2.  Knows or should know you feel that way even if they did not mean for you to feel that way.

RCW 9A.46.110. If this describes your situation, call the police.

Stalking can also mean cyberstalking (stalking you online). RCW 9.61.260.

State law creating stalking protection orders says stalking is repeated

  • contacts

  • tries to contact

  • monitoring

  • tracking

  • keeping under observation

  • following you

-and causing you to feel intimidated, scared or threatened. RCW 7.92.020 If this describes your situation, you should file for a stalking protection order. Stalking Protection Order has forms and instructions.

What if the person has threatened me with a gun?

You can file a motion asking for an Order that the person surrender their weapons OR banning them from owning weapons. Both of these must be true:

  • You are a Petitioner or Respondent in a family law, anti-harassment, stalking, or protection order case.

  • The person has used, displayed, or threatened to use a weapon on you OR in a felony.

    • If you get an Order requiring the person to surrender weapons, the police or the sheriff will serve the person with that Order.

Getting a Court Order for the Surrender of Weapons: Family Law Cases has forms and instructions.

Can the criminal justice system help?

Call the police if

  • Someone has hit or hurt you

  • Someone has physically or sexually assaulted you

  • Someone has damaged or destroyed you property

  • Someone has threatened you with a weapon

  • Someone is stalking you

  • You are the victim of a crime

  • Someone who does not live with you forces their way into your home

The police must:

  • make a report

  • tell you in writing what your rights are as a domestic violence victim

  • make sure you are not still in danger

The person who hurt you is “the perpetrator.”  The police must arrest the perpetrator if both of these are true:

  • It is your spouse, former spouse, someone you live with or used to live with, someone related you to by blood or marriage, or someone with whom you have a child.

  • They believe the perpetrator has assaulted and hurt you within the last four hours.

The police can arrest the perpetrator even if the assault happened more than four hours ago, if there is evidence of an assault.

*The police must arrest the perpetrator even if you do not have an Order for Protection or restraining order against them.

They arrested the perpetrator. Am I safe now?

The perpetrator may be out of jail a few hours after any arrest. Have someone stay with you or take your family to a friend’s home or domestic violence shelter.

Should I press criminal charges?

If you did not call the police at the time of the incident, you can later. Ask them to take a report and have charges filed. Generally, police reports go to your City or Prosecuting Attorney. They decide whether to file criminal charges. If they do not, you are entitled to written notice and information on how to ask that they file charges.

Do I need to testify in a criminal trial? 

If the City or Prosecuting Attorney files charges, you probably have to go to court to testify. The Prosecuting or City Attorney does not represent you. They represent the State.  Your part in the criminal case is as a witness for the State.

The Prosecuting or City Attorney should talk to you about your testimony before trial. Call them if you have any questions.

Many offices will give you an advocate to help you through the process. Ask for an advocate if you must testify. It might take months for a case to come to trial.

Can I ask for a No-Contact Order? 

Yes. If you are afraid the perpetrator might hurt you again, tell the advocate or prosecuting or city attorney you want one.

A no-contact order bans the perpetrator from any contact with you before trial. If you report a violation of the order, the police must immediately arrest the perpetrator.

*You should not contact the perpetrator at all when you have a no-contact order.

A no-contact order is different from other orders described here. Read the description in the attached table.

How will the court punish the perpetrator? 

Here are some things the court can do if it finds the perpetrator guilty of a crime of domestic violence:

  • Extend the No-Contact Order

  • Order counseling or drug treatment

  • Order the perpetrator to pay you back for your medical expenses and property destruction

  • Place the perpetrator on probation

  • Order jail time, if the assault was severe or the perpetrator has a criminal record

What is victim’s compensation? 

You may be entitled to money from the Crime Victims’ Compensation program if one of these is true:

  • You needed medical care for your injuries from the abuse.

  • Your injuries kept you from working.

You must report the crime to law enforcement within one year to get compensation. You have two years from reporting to law enforcement to apply to the Crime Victims Compensation program.

*The State does not have to file charges or convict the perpetrator for you to get victim compensation.

Law enforcement officials must tell you about this law, or you can ask them about it. You can get benefits even if you are still living with the perpetrator.

Important Information

What you are reading here is general education, not legal advice. If you think you might need a lawyer and your local legal services office cannot help you, your local bar association there may operate a referral program.

If you have a low income and live in Washington State outside of King County, get legal advice by calling CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014, weekdays 9:15 AM - 12:15 PM.

The information here is current as of the date of its printing. Laws sometimes change. Talk to a lawyer to be sure what you read here is correct.

*Domestic Violence Hotline is 1.800.799.7233.

Download Table Comparing Types of Protection Orders

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Last Review and Update: Nov 02, 2020
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