What happens at a TRO hearing?
In the over a decade that I have been representing both victims and alleged perpetrators in domestic violence matters, specifically including restraining orders, I am often asked what they should expect when we go to court for the final restraining order (FRO) hearing.
It is important to understand that family court is not quite like we see in television or in movies. While, some things are similar, courtrooms in television and movies are often extremely large and look very formal and intimidating. While there is no denying that the court process is intimidating, appearing in the court itself does not necessarily have to be. In most courtrooms, a Judge dressed in a black robe will be sitting on the bench, which is a slightly elevated large desk where the Judge and his clerk will be sitting. There will also be at least one sherriff’s officer in the courtroom. There will also be two tables, each with two chairs set up in the front of the courtroom. One table is for the alleged victim and the victim’s attorney and one set up for the alleged perpetrator and their respective attorney.
Some judges will allow their courtroom to remain open- which means that there may be people walking in and out during your trial. However, for every judge that will allow their courtroom to remain open to the public, just as many judges will opt for a closed courtrooms where they do not allow anyone except the parties (those sitting at the tables, the Judge, and the sheriff’s officer). Witnesses are not allowed in the courtroom during the trial until it is their turn to testify. I am often asked by my client if they can have someone in the courtroom for support. While it is ultimately the Judge’s decision, typically, you are permitted to have persons be in court in support of you. However, Judges will often confirm that these individuals are not fact witnesses-meaning that you intend for them to give a statement to the court or if they could possibly be asked to make a statement to the court regarding a specific issue or event. It is always a good idea to check with the sherriff’s officer before assuming you will be permitted to allow any persons to accompany you into the courtroom other than your attorney.
The person who sought the temporary restraining order (TRO) will be referred to as the Plaintiff whereas the person accused of committing an act of domestic violence will be referred to as the Defendant. While both parties will get an opportunity to provide testimony and evidence to the Judge, the Plaintiff will proceed with presenting their facts and side of the story first. The alleged perpetrator has a right to be present for the trial. It is critical that Plaintiff has sought the legal advice of an experienced attorney to ensure that the TRO does not need to be amended to include more specific information or additional incidents to ensure that Plaintiff is able to present the strongest case for a restraining order possible. Once Plaintiff finishes testifying either by being questioned by their attorney or the Judge if they are representing themselves, the Defendant’s attorney will have an opportunity to ask them questions regarding their allegations. This process will be repeated for each of Plaintiff’s witnesses and likewise for Defendant and each of Defendant’s witnesses.
It is important for both Plaintiff and Defendant to obtain the advice and representation of counsel to ensure that all of the appropriate evidence to prove or disprove the allegations of domestic violence. Unfortunately, if you chose to represent yourself, you will be responsible for complying with the New Jersey Rules of Evidence and Procedure just as any attorney would be and will find yourself at a disadvantage. This means that you will be responsible for ensuring that all of your evidence is provided in the correct format and is appropriately introduced, marked, and moved as well as ensuring that a proper foundation is provided, or the Judge can decide not to consider that evidence and testimony.
Both parties, Plaintiff and Defendant, may call any witness, including themselves, to provide facts, documents, pictures, recordings, etc. to the Judge that will support or disprove the allegations of domestic violence so long as they comply with Court Rules. Furthermore, both Plaintiff and Defendant may request the presence and testimony of a police officer(s) if they were involved either in the predicate act (the recent allegation that caused the TRO to be issued) or in the history of abuse. However, both parties will be responsible for ensuring that proper subpoenas are issued to ensure the appearance of law enforcement officers, meaning they do not just appear because you called them when an allegation of abuse happened.
After Defendant finishes presenting all of his witnesses and evidence, Defendant will be given an opportunity to make a closing statement on why a FRO should be denied. Then Plaintiff will be given an opportunity to make a closing statement on why a FRO is necessary for their protection. The trial could be done in one day or could take multiple court appearances spanning over the course of months. Ultimately, the Judge will make a decision as to whether a FRO is necessary to protect Plaintiff from future acts of domestic violence by Defendant and will set conditions and restrictions on Defendant. The Judge may make a decision on the spot or may take some time to issue an opinion. In either event, you will be given an Order that will outline the protections placed on Plaintiff and restrictions placed on Defendant or an Order dismissing the restraining order and lifting all of the temporary protections and restrictions.
This process can be complicated but your safety and your good name and reputation are far too precious to gamble with which is why you should contact an experienced attorney to protect you.