In Pennsylvania, Protection from Abuse (PFA) orders help to safeguard the victims of abuse from further harm. If the victim (“petitioner”) succeeds in obtaining a temporary or emergency PFA against another person (the “defendant”), then this may be followed by a final PFA, which lasts for up to three years.
Whether you're a petitioner or defendant, here's how the final PFA process works.
What Is a Final PFA Hearing?
A final PFA hearing takes place roughly ten days after the authorities serve a temporary or emergency PFA on the defendant. At the hearing, the petitioner will attempt to show why a final PFA is required to protect them from the defendant. On the other hand, the hearing is the defendant's opportunity to contest the order and challenge the petitioner's evidence.
At the hearing, the judge may:
- Grant the final PFA
- Dismiss the petitioner's case
- Continue the case and reschedule another hearing date
Where Do Final PFA Hearings Take Place?
Since final PFA hearings are legal matters, they take place before the family court at your local county courthouse. As an example, if you're in Berks County, your final PFA hearing is held in the Court of Common Pleas at the Berks County Courthouse. And if you're in Dauphin County, the Court of Common Pleas at the Dauphin County Courthouse hears the case, and so on.
Do You Need an Attorney for a Final PFA Hearing?
You can represent yourself at a final PFA hearing. However, it's best if you hire an experienced PFA attorney to represent you – here's why.
If you're the petitioner, you must present compelling evidence to show why a final PFA is necessary to protect you from harm. The stakes are high, and retaining an attorney ensures that you present your case in the most effective possible way.
And if you're the defendant, know that a final PFA can significantly affect your life in the short and long term. Having an experienced attorney by your side is the best way to ensure you present a strong defense.
Joseph Lento can use his knowledge of the rules of evidence, and the PA family court system, to help you achieve the most favorable outcome possible.
What Happens During a Final PFA Hearing?
Most final PFA hearings follow a similar format, so here's a breakdown of what to expect.
- The petitioner goes first. They will attempt to show that abuse took place and that they're at continued risk of harm. Evidence they can rely on might include messages, medical records, emails, photographs, and witness testimonies.
- Then, the defendant may cross-examine the petitioner and any witnesses they called to testify. They can also bring in their own evidence.
- Next, the petitioner can cross-examine the defendant and question any of the defense witnesses.
- At this point, the petitioner can then rebut or refute the defendant's evidence. This may involve bringing in new witnesses or evidence – the defendant can object to new evidence, though, and the judge will determine what evidence is permissible.
Standard of Proof
Once the judge hears from both parties, they'll decide whether, on the “preponderance of the evidence,” the defendant committed the actions alleged by the petitioner and they're still a risk to the petitioner's safety.
Preponderance of the evidence is a lower burden of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Put simply, if the petitioner can show that it's more likely than not that their version is the correct one, then the judge will award the final PFA.
After the Hearing
Following the final PFA hearing, both parties leave the courtroom and wait separately for a copy of the final order (or confirmation the case is dismissed if this is the case). If you're unclear about anything, this is your chance to go over the order with your attorney and ask for clarification where required.
When Does the Final PFA Become Effective?
The final PFA comes into force immediately following the final PFA hearing. If you're the defendant, make sure you fully understand what's now required of you so that there's less chance of you accidentally violating the order.
Even if you plan on appealing the final PFA, a violation in the meantime can lead to criminal contempt charges, so you must comply with the order until it expires or is dismissed.
What Happens if I Miss a Final PFA Hearing?
It depends on which party fails to show up at the hearing.
If the petitioner fails to attend the final PFA hearing, then the temporary PFA will expire, and the judge will most likely dismiss the case. The petitioner will be required to start the process all over again; however, unless there's a truly compelling reason why they failed to appear, they might find it harder to get a PFA next time around.
If the defendant fails to appear, the judge may issue a final PFA by default if:
- The petitioner can prove that a final PFA is required
- The defendant received proper notice of the final PFA hearing time and date
Alternatively, the judge may reschedule the final PFA hearing to ensure the defendant can attend or dismiss the petitioner's case.
Can I Appeal a Final PFA?
Yes. If the judge awards a final PFA against the defendant, then they can ask the court to reconsider the decision by filing a “Motion for Reconsideration” within ten days of the order passing. Depending on the circumstances, it may also be possible to appeal to the Superior Court within 30 days.
Let the Lento Law Firm Help You Prepare for a Final PFA Hearing
A final PFA hearing is a stressful and emotionally draining experience for victims and defendants alike. Whether you're seeking a PFA or defending domestic abuse allegations, the Lento Law Firm can help – contact Joseph Lento, an experienced PFA attorney, for representation by leaving a message online or calling him at 888.535.3686 today.