Defending Procedural Justice in DC

Guest post by Abigail Scott, Esq., Co-Director, Civil Protection Order Project of DC Law Students in Court

This is the third post in a new blog series on “Building A Safer, Stronger DC,” featuring stories from grantees of the City Fund Safer, Stronger DC portfolio. View the full series here.

Photo courtesy of DC Law Students in Court

Photo courtesy of DC Law Students in Court


Every year thousands of individuals in DC appear without representation to defend themselves against allegations of criminal conduct in Civil Protection Order (CPO) proceedings. They face losing custody of their children, deportation, incarceration, or other severe consequences we generally think are only the result of criminal proceedings - where defendants have guaranteed counsel and the government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. No such procedural protections exist for CPO respondents facing the same consequences. Additionally, petitioners need only prove the alleged conduct by a preponderance of the evidence, and they are much more often represented by counsel. The shocking lack of procedural protections makes it exceedingly difficult for the accused to discredit fabricated allegations.

Consider this typical outcome for an unrepresented CPO respondent: last year, a woman’s ex-husband served her with a CPO petition after a yearlong custody battle. At one point, her ex-husband had gotten aggressive and she grabbed a knife to defend herself, but never used it. Nonetheless, her ex-husband had heard a CPO could supercede the family court order that granted her full custody. She was served and days later had to defend herself in a CPO trial. She did not know how to admit evidence or cross-examine her ex-husband. She lost and the judge granted the CPO, giving her ex-husband temporary custody and issuing a no-contact order. Months later, she texted him to ask about their daughters. She was arrested and charged with criminal contempt. At that point, she became a client of Law Students in Court’s (LSIC) criminal clinic. She faced 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine. Because her CPO was not appealed, her defense attorney could not argue that the order was invalid or that she never threatened her husband. The government easily proved that she had sent the text. Had an attorney intervened during her CPO proceeding, her life would be vastly different. Instead, she lost custody of her children and now has a criminal record that defines her future opportunities.

With seed money from the City Fund, DC Law Students in Court (LSIC) officially launched the Civil Protection Order Project (CPOP) in late Spring 2018 to address this need.  LSIC provides high quality legal assistance to thousands of the District's poorest residents each year. In particular, its work on behalf of CPO respondents serves a critical need that no other organization provides. CPOP represents respondents in Civil Protection Order (CPO) matters at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. CPOP’s office space is located in the courthouse building, in the same hallway as the courtrooms that hear CPO matters, making CPOP accessible to respondents on the day of their trial.  With the support of the City Fund, CPOP was able to bring on a full-time staff member and presently provides same day and extended services at the court office on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

When a petitioner files a petition for CPO, a trial date is set two weeks out and the petitioner may use those two weeks to prepare for trial. Unfortunately, respondents are typically not alerted to the fact that they have a CPO trial until a few days before, and have no organization other than CPOP available to help them understand what it means, what are the effects, or what is needed to challenge the allegations. By contrast, there are more than 10 legal services organizations in the DC area which provide representation to petitioners. A majority of persons represented by CPOP reside in Wards 7 and 8 and are often the most in need of legal assistance. 

When both petitioner and respondent appear in court on the day of their CPO trial, both parties are required to first speak with the court negotiators.  The negotiators cannot offer advice or discuss any legal ramifications of consent CPOs. As a result, respondents often say that the negotiators and the court do not “hear” their concerns or wishes and are only accounting for those of petitioners, who are more than likely represented by counsel.  This can feel frustrating and disincline a respondent to adhere to any obligations imposed through the CPO.  CPOP has been successful in mitigating these concerns by stepping in and facilitating peaceful resolutions, thus ensuring compliance with the orders in the long run. 

When people involved in intrafamily disputes are assisted there is a reduced opportunity for disagreements to escalate. We help avoid conflict before it happens in a structured setting where both parties have opportunity to air any concerns. We ensure that both sides negotiate a settlement in a non-violent manner in their cases. LSIC and the CPOP staff members would like to thank the City Fund for its critical support of our project that is reducing intrafamily violence and serving those most in need in the District.