Thursday, March 15, 2007
Easier Access to Domestic Violence Restraining Orders Urged
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Domestic violence victims need easier access to restraining orders, two advocates told a Judicial Council task force yesterday.
Cheryl Segal of the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law and Dianna Gould-Saltman, former chair of the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Family Law Section, were among those sharing concerns at the first public hearing on the “Draft Guidelines and Recommended Practices for Improving the Administration of Justice in Domestic Violence Cases” issued by the Judicial Council’s domestic violence practice and procedure task force.
Segal, whose practice focuses on aiding impoverished domestic violence victims, agreed with the task force that issued the draft that courts should remove barriers to obtaining restraining orders under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act, and pointed to the length of the application forms as one such barrier. The nearly 46 pages’ worth of forms overwhelm even new attorneys, she said, and were repetitive.
As to a guideline stating courts should apprise parties about resources available in restraining order proceedings, Segal said referrals for immigration information were “desperately needed” by undocumented abuse victims who fear their batterers will report them to immigration authorities.
She also offered a caveat about self-help centers, saying abuse victims should not be referred to such centers with regard to preparing restraining order applications because preparation of domestic violence applications is complex and involves “matters of life and death.” Self-help centers should not be funded in this area, the lawyer added.
Gould-Saltman criticized a proposed guideline discouraging the issuance of “non-CLETS” restraining orders, or orders that are based on an agreement between the parties. Non-CLETS orders cannot be entered into the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System and are enforceable only by a contempt proceeding as opposed to law enforcement authorities.
Conceding that the task force’s concerns with such orders were reasonable—for example, the concern that they may give domestic violence victims a false sense of security—Gould-Saltman nonetheless expressed disagreement with the guideline:
“In some cases, there’s been a history of unidirectional abusive conduct and the court has good reason to be skeptical about an agreement to non-CLETS restraining orders,” she said. “In other cases, there’s been a single incident around the time the parties separated where there has been no pattern of such behavior and in those cases, the parties may for good reason wish to stipulate to conduct restraining orders that don’t rise to the level of CLETS orders, understanding the limitations of those orders.”
As long as the parties fully understand the difference between CLETS and non-CLETS orders and the agreement was not the result of duress or coercion, she said, the court should not remove their ability to make decisions about their own lives.
“I think that’s an inappropriate message to be sending to litigants, especially to victims of domestic violence who had their autonomy taken away and this may be their first step in regaining that,” the lawyer asserted.
Yesterday’s hearing also included comments on guidelines concerning court and community leadership in domestic violence cases, the enforcement of orders for the relinquishment of firearms, and practice in criminal domestic violence cases.
In brief remarks at the beginning of the hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger noted that while working to further expand and strengthen services to domestic violence victims, the court must also ensure it does not “lose the public’s perception of neutrality.”
“The courts must also be viewed as a completely fair environment for both sides to be heard and for help and justice to be offered,” he said. “Only in this way will the courts be viewed with full trustworthiness by the public, and only in this way will the problems surrounding domestic violence be handled in a credible fashion.”
Czuleger’s concern was echoed by Riverside County Public Defender Gary Windom, who was invited to share his views on firearms relinquishment orders. Of the four speakers slated for that segment of the hearing—the others being Los Angeles County Undersheriff Larry L. Waldie, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Victoria Adams, and state Deputy Attorney General Alison Y. Merrilees—Windom was the only one who advocated for the interests of alleged abusers.
Saying that some alleged victims “lie,” Windom stressed the need for “balance” in the court and noted judges must avoid “preconceived ideas of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
“[W]hen the court steps over the line and loses its independence, and the person appearing before that court doesn’t have the belief that the court is going to be fair and balanced, then our system fails,” he said, elaborating that “when the court starts to go into the community and attending domestic violence coordinating council meetings and holding independent meetings of that type, it becomes or at least has the appearance of the court being not balanced.”
The task force—which is chaired by retired First District Court of Appeal Justice Laurence D. Kay and includes Los Angeles Superior Court Judges William A. MacLaughlin and Deborah B. Andrews—was appointed in September 2005 by Chief Justice Ronald M. George to recommend changes in the court’s treatment of cases involving domestic violence allegations. George’s stated goal was “to ensure fair, expeditious, and accessible justice for litigants in these critical cases and to promote both victim safety and perpetrator accountability.”
The 18-member body developed its draft guidelines over the course of 18 months, and is set to report to the Judicial Council in December with a final version of the guidelines.
A second public hearing seeking comments on the draft guidelines is set for March 21 in San Francisco.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company