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The Nuts and Bolts of Chester County PFA Practice

Posted by Joseph Lento | Aug 24, 2016 | 0 Comments

Chester County has "local rules" that cover Protection from Abuse practice in Chester County, Pennsylvania.  These local rules are known as "Chester County Rules of Civil Procedure" (C.C.R.C.P.).  It should be noted note, however, that the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act was amended after the most recent amendments to the Chester County Rules of Civil Procedure.  As a result, the Chester County local rules will reference the former Pennsylvania PFA Act at times.  The limited inconsistency between the Pennsylvania PFA Act and Chester County local PFA rules should not, however, affect a PFA plaintiff's or PFA defendant's case in Chester County; nonetheless, the inconsistency should should be recognized.

"Plaintiff" and "petitioner" is used interchangeably in the following blog, as is "defendant" and "respondent."

The Assistant Family Court Administrator

The Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act requires the Family Court to "Provide simplified forms and clerical assistance in English and Spanish to help with the writing and filing of the petition and for a protection order for an individual not represented by counsel."  Chester County Family Court, located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is in full compliance with this statutory mandate in the person of Sara Moix, who is the Assistant Family Court Administrator.

Commencement of a PFA Action in Chester County

Chester County local rules cover the commencement of a PFA action and provides that the petition shall be substantially in the form available from the Family Court Administrator. The local rules also provide that all private family law attorney petitions “shall be reviewed and scheduled by the Family Court Administrator and filed with the Office of the Prothonotary prior to submission to the Family Court signing Judge for entry of a Temporary Ex Parte Protection Order.”

No plaintiff seeking relief under the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act shall be charged any fees or costs associated with the filing, issuance, registration or service of a petition, motion, complaint, order or other filing. Costs may be assessed by the Court at a later stage of the proceedings against the defendant. Personal service upon the defendant is required to establish jurisdiction.

Chester County local rules require that the PFA cover sheet be filed with the Chester County Family Court Prothonotary and served upon all other parties to the action. A Notice of Hearing and Order particular to Protection from Abuse actions must also be attached to the PFA Petition.

Chester County local rules require family law attorneys to file an Entry of Appearance with every initial pleading or initial filing in a Chester County PFA case.

Emergency/Ex Parte PFA Practice Before Chester County Family Court

Proceedings are commenced by filing a petition. The Pennsylvania Protection from Act (the "Act") requires a hearing within 10 business days of filing.  Secondarily, the Act provides that the plaintiff may request immediate, temporary relief at the outset of the action if there exists "Immediate and present danger of abuse."  More often than not, PFA actions begin with applications for an immediate, temporary order.

Chester County local rules cover the commencement of an abuse action and provide that the PFA petition shall be substantially in the form available from the Chester County Family Court Administrator. The local rules also provides that all private family law attorney petitions “shall be reviewed and scheduled by the Family Court Administrator and filed with the Office of the Prothonotary prior to submission to the Family Court signing Judge for entry of a Temporary Ex Parte Protection Order.”

If there is an allegation that there exists "immediate and present danger of abuse to the plaintiff or minor children, the Court shall conduct an ex parte proceeding."  In practice, the Chester County Family Court will not necessarily conduct a "proceeding." Petitions should, therefore, include all facts necessary for the Judge to act on the strength of the petition alone. If the Act was followed to the letter, the Court would, at least, be required to actually interview the petitioner or some knowledgeable witness on the record. Family law attorneys should advise their clients to be available and prepared to speak with the Judge if requested.

Although the Court must conduct an ex parte proceeding, the Chester County Family Court is by no means required to enter an order, ex parte, or for that matter enter any temporary order at all. "The court may enter such a temporary order as it deems necessary to protect the plaintiff or minor children when it finds they are in immediate and present danger of abuse."  The Act does not take away the Court's prerogative to require that the respondent be notified for the purpose of hearing the respondent on the issue of whether to enter the requested temporary order. The Court may hear the respondent later on the same day that the application for emergency relief was submitted to the Court, on the following day, or on the day after, and so on, just so that the delay is not so long as to deprive the plaintiff of the right to a temporary order under appropriate circumstances as provided in the Act. The requirement that the case in chief be heard within 10 business days is applicable in this regard.

Ancillary PFA Issues: Custody, Support, Etc.

Although the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act clearly allows the inclusion of claims for support,Chester County Family Court may decline to deal with support matters raised in abuse petitions. Petitioners will be directed to the Chester County Domestic Relations Office, also located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to file a complaint.  If a temporary order of support is entered pursuant to a PFA, Petitioners must file for support with the domestic relations office immediately. The Court is more likely to deal with child custody issues, in conjunction with an abuse action.

From time to time, petitioners ask for relief in conjunction with an abuse action to which they are clearly not entitled. Such claims are very likely to be abruptly rejected by Chester County Family Court, except that the Court may require a plaintiff to return clothes, car keys, and the like, if needed by the defendant.  The Court is more likely to require a defendant to pay medical bills as authorized by the Protection from Abuse Act.

Service and Registration of the Chester County PFA Order

According to Chester County local rules, copies of PFA orders shall be filed by the plaintiff with the appropriate police departments and the Chester County Police Radio Room. Many police departments in Chester County, for much of the day, can be reached only through the Police Radio Room which is located in the Chester County Government Services Center, 601 Westtown Road, West Chester, PA (610-692-5100).

The local rules include the form of an informational cover sheet (also called the “data sheet”) that must be attached to all orders filed with the police.  All orders shall include expiration dates.  Photocopies of certified orders are considered duplicate originals and can be used by law enforcement officers as such.

Emergency Practice Before the Chester County District Justices

After Chester County Family Court closes for the day and during the weekends, if emergencies arise, actions may be commenced pursuant to the Protection from Abuse Act by contacting a Magisterial District Justice. The Police Radio Room, mentioned above, should be contacted. A District Justice assigned to cover emergencies during off hours will be contacted by the Police Radio Room Staff. Arrangements will be made by the District Justice for the petitioner to meet with him/her without delay. The available District Justice is not likely to be a District Justice from the Chester County district in which the petitioner lives. The available District Justice will be using his/her own courtroom.

Obviously, this procedure is not used unless the petitioner also intends to request that the District Justice enter a temporary protection from abuse order. Such orders entered by District Justices are to be filed by the District Justices in the Chester County Prothonotary's Office on the next day that the Court is in session. The Pennsylvania PFA Act then requires the Court to schedule hearings.  Chester County family law attorneys must understand that the overnight PFA orders issued by District Justices do not always get to the West Chester courthouse when they should, nor do they cross the Court Administrator's desk with the regularity with which they are issued.

Because of this, additional proceedings are not scheduled unless the Court Administrator is contacted by the petitioner, petitioner's family law attorney, or someone authorized by the Act to communicate with the Court. Accordingly, family law attorneys should pursue such cases with the Court Administrator as soon as the Chester County Common Pleas Court resumes its next business day.

Contempt of a PFA in Chester County

Chester County local rules cover violating a PFA and contempt of PFA orders. The local rules contemplate that one who violates a contempt order will be arrested, brought before a District Justice, arraigned, notified of his/her rights, incarcerated or placed on bail.  Chester County police may verify the existence of the abuse order by phone or radio with the appropriate police department, the Radio Room, or the court, and arrest a defendant for violation of a protection order on information supplied by the victim or other witnesses.

According to the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act, there is no reason why a private family law attorney cannot file a complaint for contempt directly with the Chester County Court, or why a hearing date cannot be scheduled without an arrest being made; this is not the practice in Chester County however.  If contempt of a PFA is alleged, the matter is referred to a District Justice Office and an arrest warrant is issued. Moreover, a private Chester County family law attorney must get written permission from the Chester County District Attorney's Office to prosecute a contempt complaint. 

Family law attorneys representing victims or defendants in contempt of PFA order proceedings must review all the local rules. If a petition is filed alleging contempt of an abuse order with respect to solely ancillary matters such as payment of medical bills, counsel fees, etc., that petition may be pursued by private attorneys as a standard civil contempt without the criminal implications.  In addition, the Assistant Family Court Administrator should be notified at least two days prior to a hearing to which an incarcerated respondent needs to be brought in from the Chester County Prison.  All in all, Chester County Family Court does not regard contempt maters lightly.

Expungement/Return of Seized Weapons

Pursuant to Chester County local rules, a PFA respondent may request expungement of a dismissed protection from abuse order and may request that weapons seized pursuant to the order be returned.

Conclusion

It is critical to understand that Chester County has specific local rules for Protection from Abuse cases. In that regard, PFA Plaintiffs and PFA defendants will have different perspectives as to what constitutes success in a Chester County PFA case, but regardless of which side of the courtroom a party stands, the Chester County local rules must be understood and followed in order to achieve success.  Ultimately, whether a PFA plaintiff or PFA defendant in Chester County, parties have a small window of opportunity to have a PFA granted or dismissed.  With the stakes so high for both plaintiffs and defendants, it is always best to have a highly-experienced and highly-dedicated Chester County PFA attorney in your corner as early as possible.

About the Author

Joseph Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience advocating for his Family Law clients in courtrooms in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, as well as New Jersey. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and protects their interests.

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