Although there are several barriers that impede access to justice for domestic violence survivors seeking court-ordered protection, two of these barriers are being addressed head-on by the passage of Assembly Bill 887: in-person court filings and access to self-help information.
Introduced by Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-Marin) and signed into law by Governor Newsom on October 8, 2021, AB 887 adds two new sections to the Family Code that all family law practitioners should be familiar with. The first of these is Family Code section 6306.5, which authorizes the electronic filing of Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA) petitions; and the second is Family Code section 6306.6, which mandates online access to domestic violence restraining order information on superior court websites.
Family Code, § 6306.5 (Electronic Filing)
Under newly added Family Code section 6303.5, trial courts across the state are required to accept the electronic submission of DVPA petitions, contingent on an appropriation of state funds for this purpose. (Fam. Code, § 6306.5, subds. (a), (d).) In fact, many smaller counties do not currently provide for the electronic filing of court documents, and DVPA petitioners have been limited to the filing options available to them at the discretion of the trial court. (AB 887 Assembly Judiciary, Mar. 23, 2021.)
Unfortunately, this disparity in access to alternative methods of court filing overlooks a slew of issues that impact domestic violence survivors who are required to file DVPA petitions in-person; these include a lack of access to transportation (e.g., no car or bus fare to get to the courthouse), limited access to childcare services, and limited opportunity to leave home or work during standard business hours. Moreover, with the systemic challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, e.g., temporary courthouse closures, shelter-in-place orders, and limited filing window hours, submitting a DVPA petition in-person has become an even greater logistical nightmare and safety concern.
AB 887 helps to alleviate some of the above by allowing the petitioner to not only file the DVPA petition electronically free-of-charge (see Fam. Code, § 6306.5, subd. (c)), but also receive all of the following documents electronically (Fam. Code, § 6306.5, subd. (a)(2)):
- The notice of court date;
- Copies of the request to mail on respondent; and
- The temporary restraining order, if granted.
However, Family Code section 6303.5 is clear that electronic submission and retrieval of DVPA filings is optional; if the petitioner would prefer to receive the above documents by regular mail or by picking them up them from the courthouse, they may still elect to do so. (Fam. Code, § 6306.5, subd. (a)(3).)
Family Code, § 6306.6 (Self-Help Information)
AB 887 also creates Family Code section 6306.6, which requires that information about access to self-help services regarding domestic violence restraining orders be prominently visible on the superior court’s website. (Fam. Code, § 6306.6, subd. (a).) According to the bill’s legislative history, this section, like the addition of Family Code section 6306.5, is intended “to eliminate burdens for parties who may not know how to file petitions with the court. . .” (AB 887 Assembly Floor Analysis, Sept. 8, 2021.)
Notably, one of those burdens is simply finding the opportunity and a safe location to seek out help, information, and resources, which has become even more challenging for domestic violence survivors during the pandemic. Indeed, as AB 887’s legislative history notes, “[c]hanges to everyday life associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have led to increased rates of domestic violence,” as public health restrictions have kept survivors confined inside with their abusers. (AB Assembly Floor Analysis, Sept. 8, 2021.)
While the ability to access domestic violence restraining order information online does not completely eliminate the safety concerns or barriers domestic violence survivors face in accessing protective order information and resources, AB 887 is certainly a step in the right direction toward minimizing the challenges survivors face in seeking court-ordered protection.
For further discussion of the DVPA petitions generally, see Practice Under the California Family Code: Dissolution, Legal Separation, Nullity chapter 11.
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