Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Californians had long struggled with the other pandemic: intimate partner violence (“IPV” — synonymous with “domestic violence”). How big a problem? Enormous: 34.9% of California women and 31.1% of California men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes. In 2018, there were 166,890 IPV-related calls to law enforcement; 46% of reported incidents involved weapons. In a single day in 2019, 81% of California domestic violence shelters served 5,644 adults and children. In 2018, IPV homicides comprised 10.7% of all California homicides. A study of women in 67 California domestic violence shelters found that abusive intimate partners used handguns to harm, threaten, or scare 32.1% of study participants. (Data from: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2020).)
Then came COVID-19. The increase in IPV on account of increased stress, anxiety, job loss, economic uncertainty, and restricted movement (lockdowns) was sadly entirely predictable. There is a robust academic literature demonstrating throughout the world a direct relationship between such stressors and IPV.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court plays a critical role in protecting victims of IPV by issuing “orders of protection” — immediate temporary and long-term restraining orders. Our restraining order work is broader than IPV: it includes community- and workplace-based violence, gun violence and elder abuse. It is a massive and important part of our work.
The LASC is the largest trial court in the U.S. with nearly 600 judicial officers, 38 courthouses, about 4,600 employees. Our court serves an area of about 4,700 square miles and a population of 10 million persons. We are presented with about 25,000 requests for restraining orders per year (apart from criminal prosecutions that can result in a criminal protective order). Along with our colleague, former Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile, we were confronted a year ago with an unparalleled challenge: to provide victims of violence access to justice to obtain orders of protection at a time when public health concerns required that we close much of our court operations and severely restrict access to our courthouses. Those alleged victims and alleged perpetrators clearly needed to have their due process and their day in court.
Despite temporary closures of other parts of our court’s operations, we committed that our family law courts would remain 100% open for restraining order matters as part of our emergency services. During the past 12 months, people suffering crises of violence and needing orders of protection continued to be welcomed in our courthouses. And pandemic or not, the same day that the restraining application was presented, a judicial officer considered the alleged victim’s application and, if warranted, issued a temporary restraining order. That TRO could then be immediately enforced by law enforcement. Accordingly, until a full hearing scheduled 21 days later in a courtroom, alleged victims of violence would be protected from any contact in any form from the alleged abuser; the alleged abuser could be required to vacate a residence immediately; and a temporary emergency custody order made to protect any minor children from the alleged abuser. A TRO can be a lifesaver, literally.
Since March 2020, we also operated all our restraining order courtrooms at 100% capacity (although we staggered start times and imposed social distancing) to make sure that both the alleged victim and alleged abuser would have a fair, timely hearing at which a judicial officer would decide whether to issue a long-term restraining order. (Restraining order hearings do not involve juries.) At these hearings, parties could present witness and documentary evidence in support and in opposition to the request for a long-term restraining order. Likewise, 100% of all requests to renew a restraining order were timely set for an evidentiary hearing. The expiration of a long-term restraining order can place victims at substantial risk.
But that was not good enough. In the spring of 2020, in the face of community-wide “stay at home orders,” we modified longstanding rules and procedures and, for the first time, permitted alleged victims to present their applications for emergency and long-term orders remotely — other than in person in our courthouses. Alleged abusers defending against such charges were offered the identical services. We established email “resource accounts” in our clerks’ offices, established external drop-boxes and promoted fax-filing as alternatives to physically coming to the courthouse. Still, we committed that our judicial officers would act on applications so presented within the “same day” mandate. In a court system the size of the LASC, these innovations required extensive and nimble changes in complex court operational processes — all the more challenging because at the very same time our court was implementing programs for its thousands of employees to work from home.
But more could be done. In August 2020 we rolled out a “remote appearance platform” called LACourtConnect — and permitted every party, lawyer and witness involved in any restraining order hearing to appear remotely, by audio or video, for their restraining order hearing. The fees are modest for such an appearance ($23 or less) — often less than the cost of parking near our courthouses. But we resolved that our court would also waive that fee, too, for persons whose economic circumstances so required. Suddenly dozens and dozens of restraining order hearings every day, all over L.A. County, were (and still are) occurring while persons involved in the hearings could stay safely at home.
But that, too, was still not good enough in our view. In April 2020, we doubled the number of dedicated restraining order courts in the county — courtrooms with judicial officers who only hear and decide restraining order matters. And last month, March 2021, we added yet another. Our court now has seven dedicated restraining order courts, along with another 30+ who hear such matters daily among other family law proceedings. We have been able to add additional judicial officer resources to the Family Law Division to support these efforts despite the serious judicial officer resource constraints of the other divisions of our court.
While we have been active, we have also been listening. We have established even closer communications with lawyers, agencies and NGOs in the community dedicated to solving the challenges of access to justice for victims of abuse with limited technology and economic means, a population often speaking languages other than English. These people are, we know, the most vulnerable members of our community and we must make sure that our innovations do not leave them behind and voiceless. We gratefully thank our colleagues in the Family Law Coalition community for their commitment to justice and for their support of our restraining order court innovations.
While we are pleased by what we have accomplished, we also know all too well that there is more to do to enhance access to justice for victims of abuse. And we will keep working toward that goal. We each humbly thank the hundreds of judges and court staff whom we have the honor to supervise and who have worked so hard for the past 12 months to get us to where we are now and will take us where we are going. We invite you to learn far more about restraining orders and court associated court services by visiting our website at www.lacourt.org.