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Domestic Violence: Can the Legal System Help Protect Me?

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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3700EN - This publication defines domestic violence, advises how you can protect yourself and your family by getting a protection order or restraining order, and provides information on where to get help.

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What is domestic violence?

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

What is the legal definition of domestic violence?

Washington law says domestic violence is when someone:

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

  • Causes you to fear immediate physical harm or assault

The person causing the harm or threatening you must be:

  • A family member AND/OR

  • Someone you live with or lived with in the past AND/OR

  • Someone with whom you currently have or have had a dating relationship AND/OR

  • Someone you have a child with

Here are examples of incidents that can cause you to fear immediate harm:

  • restraining your freedom of movement

  •  stalking you

  • destroying your property

  • making verbal threats about hurting you

  • Making threats electronically

*It does not matter that the person is a relative, lives with you, or has a child with you. No one has the right to threaten or hurt you.

How can I protect myself and/or my children from domestic violence?

This publication explains how the criminal and the civil legal systems can help.  

*If you are currently a domestic violence victim, get help from your local domestic violence shelter. Shelters provide safety planning, temporary shelter, legal advocacy, counseling, and other services. To find the program nearest you, call Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-562-6025.

How can the civil legal system help me?

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  

Orders for Protection

You can get an Order for Protection if you have been assaulted or threatened by:

  • a relative

  • someone you live with

  • a spouse or ex-spouse

  • someone you are dating

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 a petition for an Order for Protection. The forms are available in District, Municipal, and Superior Courts statewide. You can also use the Washington LawHelp guided DVPO interview to fill out and print your forms online. Check with your local court first to see if they have their own forms you must use. The forms are also on the state courts websitehttp://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/.

When filling out a Petition for an Order for Protection, you must put 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.

What if I need the Order immediately?

You can get a Temporary Order for Protection immediately when you fill out the petition and a judge signs it. The sheriff will then give the Respondent a copy of the Order. You will have a hearing for a permanent order two weeks later (sometimes called a "return hearing").
You can ask for a Temporary Protection Order in Municipal, District, or Superior Court. The clerk of the court where you file will tell you where the judge will hold the return hearing. The Respondent can go to the hearing to give his/her side of the story.

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

How can an Order for Protection help me?

  • It can order the Respondent to stop having any contact with you.

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

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

  • It can keep him/her from your home, work, school, or your children's school or daycare.

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

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

  • It can grant you the use or ownership of 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 can only get your order enforced if you call the cops to report a violation.

Will the Order protect me outside my county?

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

When will the Order for Protection end (expire)?

The Order will last either for a fixed period or permanently. An Order protecting children can 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 s/he is no longer a risk to you and/or your children.

What if Respondent violates the Order?

It is a crime to violate an Order for Protection. The cops must enforce your order and arrest Respondent.

Restraining Orders

You may ask for a Restraining Order if you have filed a family law action such as

  • divorce

  • paternity (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.

A Restraining Order may:

  • Order Respondent to stay away from you and the children and exclude him/her from your home, workplace, daycare, or school

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

  • Add other restraints as appropriate

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

Anti-Harassment Orders

This order applies when Respondent has seriously alarmed, annoyed, or harassed you. Parties involved generally were not married or living together, and have no children together.

You must prove that:

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

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

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

*You usually file a petition for an Anti-Harassment Order in district court. Use our packet called Antiharassment Forms and Instructions.

What if someone is stalking me?

Washington state law defines "stalking" a few ways. Stalking as a crime happens when     

  • Someone intentionally keeps harassing or following you; AND

  • You fear that the stalker wants to hurt you, another person, or your property or someone else's property. Your fear must be reasonable under the circumstances AND

  • The stalker either
    1. Means to frighten, intimidate, or harass you OR
    2.  Knows or should know you are afraid, intimidated, or harassed even if the stalker did not mean to make you feel that way

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

Stalking can also mean cyberstalking. Washington defines this term at RCW 9.61.260.

A state law passed in 2013 creating stalking protection orders also defines stalking as repeated

  • contacts

  • tries to contact

  • monitoring

  • tracking

  • keeping under observation

  • following another person

…and causing someone to feel intimidated, scared or threatened. 1383S.Sl. If this describes your situation, you should file for a stalking protection order. Read our publication called I Am Being Stalked. Can the Legal System Help? Our packet called Stalking Protection Order has forms and instructions.

What if the other party has threatened me with a gun?

You can make a motion for an Order that the other party surrender his/her gun and/or other weapons OR banning the other party from owning weapons if

  • you are a Petitioner or Respondent in a family law case (non-parent custody, divorce, parentage, petition to change parenting/custody order),OR an anti-harassment, stalking, or protection order case AND

  • the other party has used, displayed, or threaten to use a gun or other weapon on you OR in a felony

If you are party to a family law case and need to file this motion, our packet Getting a Court Order for the Surrender of Weapons: Family Law Cases has forms and instructions.

How can the criminal justice system help me?

Call the cops if:

  • You have been hit or hurt

  • You have been physically or sexually assaulted

  • Your property has been damaged or destroyed

  • You have been threatened with a weapon

  • Someone is stalking you

  • You are the victim of a crime

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

As a victim, you should call the cops. They are there for your protection. They 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

When you are a crime victim, the person who hurt you is "the perpetrator."  The cops must arrest the perpetrator if

  • S/he is your spouse or former spouse, someone you live with or have lived with, someone you are related to by blood or marriage, or someone with whom you have a child AND

  • There is reason to believe the perpetrator has assaulted and hurt you within the last four hours

The cops may arrest the perpetrator even if the assault happened more than four hours ago, if there is evidence of an assault. If the cops arrest the perpetrator, s/he may be out of jail in a few hours. You will still need to protect yourself. Have someone come to stay with you or take your family to a friend's home or a domestic violence shelter.

*The cops must arrest the perpetrator even if you do not have an Order for Protection or restraining order against him/her.

Press Criminal Charges

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

Testifying in a Criminal Trial 

If the City Attorney or Prosecuting Attorney files charges, you will probably have to go to court to testify. The Prosecuting/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/City Attorney should talk to you  about your testimony before the 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 will have to testify. It might take months for a case to come to trial.

Ask for a No-Contact Order 

If you are afraid the perpetrator might hurt you again, tell the advocate or the prosecuting/city attorney you want a No-Contact Order. This court order bans the perpetrator from having any contact with you before trial. If you report a violation of the order, the cops must immediately arrest the perpetrator.

  • You should not contact the perpetrator at all when you have a no-contact order. The cops may not enforce it as well if you do.

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

The Court can Order the Perpetrator into Treatment 

Here are some examples of what the court can order if it finds the perpetrator guilty of a crime of domestic violence:

  • Continue the No-Contact Order for a longer time

  • Order counseling or alcoholism 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

Victim's Compensation 

You may be entitled to money from the Crime Victims' Compensation program if:

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

  • Your injuries kept you from working

You must report to law enforcement within one year of the crime to be eligible for compensation. You have two years from reporting to law enforcement to file an application for benefits with the Crime Victims Compensation program.

*The State does not have to file charges or successfully convict the perpetrator of the crime for you to qualify for victim compensation.

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

Important Information

This publication provides general education, not legal advice. If you think you might need a lawyer and your local legal services office cannot help you, you may be able to find a lawyer who will charge a reduced fee for your first appointment by checking the yellow pages of your phone directory under "Attorneys."  There may also be a listing for a referral program operated by your local bar association.

If you are low-income and live in Washington State outside of King County, get legal advice by calling CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014, between the hours of 9:15 AM and 12:15 PM, Monday through Friday.

The information in this publication is current as of the date of its printing. Laws sometimes change. Talk to a lawyer to be sure the information in this publication is correct.

*Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-562-6025.


This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. This information is current as of July 2016.

© 2016 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014.
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)

Last Review and Update: Jul 26, 2016