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Do I need a lawyer for a CPO hearing in D.C.?

Jamison KoehlerDomestic Violence

Whether or not you should hire a lawyer for a CPO hearing depends on what you are hoping to achieve.  

Unlike a criminal case in which the defendant faces potential jail-time, the stakes are not as high in a civil protection order (CPO) case.  In the worst-case scenario, the court grants the petitioner’s request for a year-long protection order and imposes a series of restrictive conditions on you.  

Many of the parties on both sides – petitioners as well as respondents – do in fact represent themselves at CPO hearings every day in D.C. Superior Court.  

That said, there are a number of reasons you might want to hire a lawyer.

For one thing, although not as serious as a criminal case, the issuance of a CPO against you can have several life-long consequences.  There is a social stigma attached.  For example, would you want your child to date someone who had been the target of a restraining order?  There are career ramifications:  The question often comes up on job applications and during background investigations, particularly in connection with a security clearance.  Finally, the issuance of a CPO against you can subject you to potential criminal liability should the petitioner allege a violation.  It is, after all, a crime punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 to violate a CPO.  

A lawyer can also serve simultaneously as your advisor and advocate.  For example, you have a number of options when you find yourself served with notice of the CPO hearing.  You can agree to the CPO, with or without admissions.  You can negotiate a private agreement that avoids the pitfalls of a CPO altogether.  Or you can litigate the CPO.  

This leads to the last benefit of having a lawyer represent you:  A lawyer will be particularly helpful if you decide to contest the CPO through a hearing.  In most cases in which one or both parties are unrepresented, the court will step in to assure that no one’s rights are seriously jeopardized.  At the same time, there is a big difference between protecting basic due process rights and actively promoting your interests through a strong and creative defense.   Substantive law and the rules of evidence are complicated and, in many cases, counterintuitive.  An experienced lawyer can be the difference between success and failure.