In New Jersey, domestic violence encompasses an extensive array of behaviors, including assault, harassment, criminal trespass, sexual assault and stalking. While victims are entitled to bring criminal charges against their abuser, most domestic violence cases are settled with the issuance of a restraining order by the superior courts. Since a restraining order is a civil matter, the defendant does not face any criminal penalties when he or she attends the hearing. There are, however, some very serious consequences to being labeled a “domestic abuser”, depending on one's personal, professional and financial circumstances.
These consequences are especially alarming to defendants who are in the middle of a divorce, since it could affect their ability to win primary or joint custody of their children. It could also result in the victim being awarded the marital home, along with a greater share of other valuable marital assets. Even if you're not going through a divorce, just the stigma of having a restraining order against you can disrupt your life for many years into the future. In addition to ruining your reputation in the community, you could be fired from your job, and be denied for housing and credit. In fact, just an application for a restraining order (which never resulted in an actual restraining order) may be enough for some landlords and creditors to deny you. This can lead to financial ruin and homelessness, from which the defendant may never recover.
Because of these and other serious ramifications, legal professionals have started to question the need for indigent domestic violence defendants to be provided an attorney through the courts. As you are probably aware, the right to counsel currently applies only to criminal proceedings in which the defendant faces the possibility of incarceration. Both the New Jersey Appellate Division and the Supreme Court of New Jersey have continue to uphold this policy. A recent decision in the case of D.N v. K.M states, “Consistent with the current law, the Appellate Division concluded that “the protections of due process do not require the appointment of counsel for indigents presenting or defending a private party's civil domestic violence action.'”
To clarify, New Jersey's Prevention of Domestic Violence Act does not authorize the appointment of counsel for indigent parties, although the court may grant the request at its own discretion. From the figures, it would appear that the courts are rather conservative in approving such requests. Out of the 16,000 final restraining order hearings that took place during 2012 to 2013, there were only 1,200 approvals for court appointed counsel. Hence, it's not surprising that there has been an outcry, even among Appellate judges, for this issue to be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Until then, it is imperative that both parties of a domestic violence situation receive legal advice from an experienced family law attorney. For more information on New Jersey's domestic violence laws, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.