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caption: King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle
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King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle

With courthouse closed, King County unveils e-filing for domestic violence victims

Until this month, people had to come to court to seek emergency protection against a domestic abuser.

But the King County Prosecutor’s Office says they now have an electronic alternative in place during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’ve had to completely alter the way we provide services to domestic violence survivors when seeking a civil protection order," said Colleen McIngalls, the program manager for the Protection Order Advocacy Program at the King County prosecutor’s office.

"We’ve transformed our services to 100 percent remote telephonic assistance and are also working electronically with survivors," she continued.

They are "taking a 100% 'in-person' service and now doing it remotely, which is a complete change of our practice and was a really difficult decision to make, just knowing how much survivors need advocacy and services especially right now.”

She noted that emergency 9-1-1 calls related to domestic violence have increased since the state’s “stay-at-home” order went into effect.

McIngalls said that even before the courthouse closed, her office had been working with the company LegalAtoms to allow people to seek protection orders remotely. The company created a filing process similar to the way TurboTax helps prepare tax forms.

That allowed a woman who was immunocompromised and feared coming to court to file from home recently. Once the woman completed the form, “we were able to get her to electronically sign that document and then we were able to submit it electronically to the court,” McIngalls said.

One challenge in those situations, McIngalls said, will be to verify that the person’s phone or computer aren’t being monitored by the alleged abuser.

The judge then conducted a brief hearing by telephone. Those calls are still conducted from the courthouse with judges and staff present so they can be recorded.

Once approved, state law calls for someone, often law enforcement, to “serve” the protection order to the respondent in person. That usually means handing the person a stack of documents, McIngalls said, including the date and time for the full hearing to come 14 days later.

But during this outbreak, McIngalls said advocates for victims are asking the Washington State Supreme Court to make some exceptions to in-person service.

She said, “We have certainly seen some law enforcement departments that are not wanting to comply with the statutory requirement of personal service.” Some orders could be “served” electronically, such as cases where the two parties have separate residences.

That would reserve in-person service by law enforcement for the highest-risk situations, like vacating a residence, transferring custody of children, and surrendering firearms. “We know that when these orders are served upon respondents, that it can be the most dangerous time for a survivor,” she said.

In a March 25 letter to the Washington State Supreme Court, King County prosecutors said electronic filing and service of protection orders needs to be facilitated statewide.

They wrote, “We ask the Court to give guidance to provide virtual access for petitioners filing for protection orders, both by telephone and digital means, and allow alternative service to law enforcement during this pandemic.”

McIngalls said these efforts are coming at a time when victims of domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable, and confined at home with limited options.

“We know that DV is going up,” she said. “We’ve seen that anecdotally. Our call volumes have increased."