Tips for Handling Pro Bono Family Abuse Prevention Act Cases

January 2011
By Judge Youlee You, Multnomah County Circuit Court.

One of the best ways for young lawyers to gain pro bono experience is to represent petitioners in contested Family Abuse Prevention Act (FAPA) hearings. Although these evidentiary hearings are conducted before judges and not juries, attorneys have the opportunity to prepare and present evidence, question witnesses, make objections and argue on their feet. Attorneys get good trial experience and good pro bono experience at the same time. Who could ask for more?

Although this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few tips from judges who routinely hear FAPA hearings:

  1. Outline the elements of the FAPA statute (ORS 107.710). Have a witness or exhibit to prove each element. Very often, this will be just the petitioner.

  2. Prepare succinct opening and closing statements.

  3. Familiarize yourself with the rules of evidence, which apply to these hearings. This is a good opportunity to exercise your knowledge of when the evidence code applies and learn when objecting is not necessary.

  4. Pictures of injuries and relevant recorded phone messages can be helpful. If the pictures are from a cell phone, have copies printed so that you have a useful exhibit and a better record for appeal.

  5. Don't panic when the evidence is different from what your client told you. Maintain focus and reassess your case as the evidence unfolds.

  6. If you show up for the hearing and the respondent has witnesses or discovery that you were not aware of and you need more time to refute it, ask for additional time.

  7. Do not get caught up in all of the parties' issues, as many of them are not related to FAPA, for example, parenting practices (as opposed to parenting time), financial issues, property issues, etc.

  8. Cases that will take longer than 45 minutes must be put on the domestic relations trial assignment docket (domestic relations call). The ordinary FAPA docket has up to six hearings every Monday and Thursday at 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., and therefore cannot accommodate cases that are longer than 45 minutes.

  9. Be creative regarding parenting time. Is there a relative, friend or other safe and neutral third party that can help the parties reach a parenting time solution that works all involved and keeps your client safe?

  10. Speaking of safety, make sure that you exercise appropriate safety precautions inside and outside of the courtroom. If you have concerns about your client's safety, ask the court to have the respondent remain in the courtroom for 15 minutes so that your client can leave the building without running into the respondent in the elevator or on the street outside the courthouse.

  11. Does your client need an interpreter? Make sure to contact Interpreter Services well in advance of the hearing date. Interpreters have busy schedules and are not always available. Additionally, some interpreters need to be flown in from other states, depending on the language.

If you are interested in volunteering, contact Catherine Yarnes at Legal Aid Services of Oregon, 503.224.4086, probono@lasoregon.org.

Many thanks to all of the attorneys who have generously committed their time and energy to these cases. Also, special thanks to the Multnomah County family court judges for their suggestions and tips for this article.