Victims of domestic violence and stalking in New Hampshire can now apply for protective orders online, in addition to filing in person at their local courthouse.
The new remote filing option requires victims to contact one of the state’s 13 crisis centers or the Strafford County Family Justice Center, where trained advocates can give them access to the appropriate forms and safely guide them through the electronic submission process. While it’s too early to say if the e-filing process will outlast the pandemic, officials say the new system launched Tuesday helps address an immediate need while still prioritizing victims’ safety.
“We feel this temporary solution will provide a much-needed avenue for vulnerable populations who could not seek protection during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Sarah Freeman, domestic violence program manager for the New Hampshire Judicial Branch. “By using technology and this expedited process, the courts will be better able to provide access to justice for many of the state’s most critically affected people and to speed up much-needed relief from domestic violence or abuse.”
Since the onset of COVID-19 in New Hampshire, court officials have worked collaboratively with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and its 13 member programs, New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA), Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project and other private practice attorneys on the pilot project. With courts limiting foot traffic and in-person proceedings since mid-March, officials worried that those in need of a protective order may have become hesitant or unable to file in person.
“We saw a 21% drop in domestic violence petitions filed in March and April from the same time last year and a 30% drop in stalking petitions filed,” Circuit Court Administrative Judge David King said in a statement Wednesday. “While this may have partly been due to the Supreme Court’s extension of protective orders, we concluded it was more than likely due to access barriers enhanced by COVID-19, and we needed to act to help support people experiencing domestic violence and stalking who couldn’t make it to a courthouse.”
Advocates told the Monitor in recent weeks that significantly fewer victims have contacted them for assistance with filing for restraining orders since mid-March, which is consistent with disclosures of abuse and outreach being down overall. A year-to-year comparison of in-person filings for new domestic violence petitions in the month of April alone shows a 40% decrease from 371 to 222.
The coalition’s Director of Public Affairs Amanda Grady Sexton said stay-at-home orders designed to minimize viral transmission have meant that many victims are trapped with their abusers for longer periods of time and have fewer opportunities to seek help. She said the alternative filing method will ensure victims who face even greater barriers due to the pandemic can still take steps to seek safety for themselves and their children.
“We hope this helps individuals who are otherwise unable to access the courts due to the pandemic, in receiving live-saving support as they seek relief from abuse,” Grady Sexton said. “Advocates will be able to work closely with survivors in identifying the best option for them to file a petition, whether in person or through the new electronic system.”
While advocates are available 24/7 through the state’s domestic violence hotline, e-filing of the domestic violence and stalking petitions is limited to Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. In-person filings are still accepted until 4 p.m.
In order to file online, the petitioner must include a working phone number that it is safe for court staff to call within 30 minutes to an hour after the petition is received, Freeman said. If the call isn’t answered, court staff will leave a nonspecific voice message – in an effort not to compromise the victim’s safety – that must then be returned by 4 p.m. the same day or the petition will be dismissed.
Once the request for a protective order is submitted, the filing is given priority status. If the judge grants the petition, court staff will follow up with the petitioner to schedule a hearing, which can take place over the phone, and confirm if the order should be issued in person, by mail or by email.
Before launching the new system this week, both the coalition and NHLA ran separate focus groups. They gathered input from those working on the front lines with victims to determine the best course for implementation and to troubleshoot initial concepts, said Erin Jasina, NHLA’s domestic violence project director.
“We were able to gather those collective, expert experiences and apply them to the court process,” Jasina said. “I was so impressed with the collaboration and how quickly we were able to implement something that helps get victims and survivors the resources they need without putting them at greater risk.”
Jasina said that while the initial intent is for the e-filing system to be temporary to address issues brought about by the pandemic, she wonders if it may have long-term viability.
“It’ll be important for us to collect the data, see how it’s working, get input from victims and see if this is a viable option for us down the road, as well,” she said. “It’s an evolving process but it may be a sustainable model we’ll want to use in the future.”