In Vermont, victims of domestic abuse can go to civil court and ask for a relief from abuse order. A relief from abuse (RFA) order directs the alleged abuser not to harm or have any contact with the victim. Even though it's a civil order, violating the order can result in criminal penalties.
Under Vermont's Abuse Prevention Act, any victim of domestic abuse may file for an RFA order. If the victim is a child younger than 16, an adult can file on the child's behalf. A child of any age who's in a dating relationship, however, can file on their own behalf against the dating partner.
Domestic abuse includes any of the following acts between family or household members:
Family and household members include people who:
A victim (the plaintiff) must fill out paperwork (provided by the court) outlining the allegations of domestic abuse committed by the family or household member (the defendant). This complaint needs to provide certain information for the court to grant the order, including identifying specific acts of abuse and the required relationship.
A complaint for relief from abuse can be filed in the county where the plaintiff currently lives or lived when the abuse happened. For those who participate in the Safe-at-Home address confidentiality program, filing the complaint in Washington County is also an option. Plaintiffs can file complaints telephonically or electronically, as needed, for emergency relief after regular court hours or on weekends or holidays.
Nothing. Vermont law does not require plaintiffs to pay court costs or filing fees to ask for an RFA order. The court provides the forms for the parties to fill out. A plaintiff doesn't need an attorney to get the RFA order (but can have one).
Victims who believe they're in immediate danger can request emergency relief in the form of a temporary or ex parte order. Ex parte—pronounced ex par-tee—means the court is only hearing the victim's side of the story at this point.
Based on the complaint, the judge can order temporary relief for the victim when the judge believes the defendant abused the victim and danger of further abuse continues to exist prior to holding a full hearing. In the full hearing, the defendant has an opportunity to tell their side of the story. (More on this hearing below.)
Typically, a law enforcement officer or process server will deliver the papers to the defendant. The complaint will list the allegations and let the defendant know when the full court hearing will be. The defendant may file an answer, attend the hearing set on the matter, or do neither or both. Normally, the full hearing will be held within 14 days.
If the court issued an ex parte order, the defendant should take it seriously, as a violation can mean criminal charges.
The court will hold a hearing on the complaint unless the plaintiff requests dismissal of the case. Although the defendant isn't required to respond to the complaint, the judge can (and likely will) grant the order if the defendant doesn't show. At the hearing, the plaintiff must prove the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence (a standard of "more likely than not"). The defendant also will have a chance to give evidence and testimony as to why the judge should deny the complaint.
The type of order—temporary (ex parte) or final—will determine its duration and terms (also called relief).
The ex parte or temporary order provides whatever emergency relief the judge deems necessary to protect the plaintiff or a minor in the household from further acts of domestic abuse. Oftentimes, temporary orders prohibit the defendant from contacting or going near the plaintiff, give the plaintiff temporary custodial rights to the children and sole possession of the residence, and prohibit the defendant from harming any pets. The order remains in effect until the court dismisses the case or holds a full hearing on the original complaint, whichever occurs first.
The final RFA order remains in effect for a fixed period of time. Most orders expire after a year but can be extended, if necessary, to protect the plaintiff or children from abuse. If the court finds that the defendant committed domestic abuse and danger for further abuse exists or that the defendant is currently incarcerated due to a serious violent crime conviction, the court may issue the RFA order.
The final order can offer more relief than the temporary order. It can:
Even though an RFA order is a civil court order, violating the order can result in both civil and criminal penalties. The court can also a defendant to participate in counseling.
Arrest. If a police officer has probable cause to believe (a reasonable belief) that a person committed assault against a family or household member, the officer can arrest the offender without a warrant.
Misdemeanor. Violating an RFA order constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year of incarceration and a $5,000 fine.
Felony. If the defendant has a previous conviction for violating an RFA order or for domestic assault, the penalty increases to a felony. The repeat offender faces up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Contempt. The prosecutor may also charge violating an RFA order as a criminal contempt (violating a court's order), which carries up to six months in jail and a $10,000 fine.
(Vt. Stat. tit. 13, § 1030, tit. 15, §§ 1101 to 1106, 1108; Vt. Rules of Crim. Proc., Rule 3; 18 U.S.C. § 922 (2021).)
If you received notice of an RFA complaint or order against you, contact an attorney who works in family law or criminal defense. For criminal charges stemming from a violation, talk to a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced attorney can review the unique circumstances of your case and discuss all potential options.
The Vermont Judiciary provides free forms and instructions online for relief from abuse orders.