Seems pretty obvious that if a court is going to explain the ramifications of the right to have counsel in a domestic violence matter and the ramifications of the entry of a finding of domestic violence and the entry of a Final Restraining Order (FRO), the explanation should be done before the hearing, not after the finding of domestic violence is made. However, that reminder was supplied again by the Appellate Division in a short reported (precedential) decision in the case of A.A.R. v. J.R.C. decided on April 25, 2022.
The specifics are not that important other than the following facts. Neither party was represented by counsel at trial. At the beginning of the FRO hearing, the judge asked defendant if he was ready to proceed with trial, and defendant said that he was. The judge did not inform the parties of their right to retain counsel, or of the serious consequences that could ensue if an FRO was entered against either one of them (there were cross complaints filed), prior to trial. After entering an FRO in plaintiff’s favor and dismissing defendant’s cross complaint, on then did the trial judge explain the consequences of the FRO, including the fact that defendant’s fingerprints and photographs would be included in the New Jersey Domestic Violence Registry. It was at this point that the defendant requested counsel only to have his request denied because he “already heard the case.” This appeal ensued and the Appellate Division reversed, reinstating the TRO and remanding the matter for a new trial.
It is somewhat surprising that the case was reported because this really isn’t new law. In J.D. v. M.D.F., 207 N.J. 458, 478 (2011), the Supreme Court had already said that parties to a domestic violence action are entitled to certain procedural due process rights. In D.N. v. K.M., 429 N.J. Super. 592, 606 (App. Div. 2013), the Appellate Division stated that “The right to seek counsel is an important due process right that affords defendants “a meaningful opportunity to defend against a complaint in domestic violence matters[.]” This does not, however, include the right to appointed counsel.
In A.A,R. this appears to expand the panoply of due process rights noting:
… Relatedly, we conclude that due process also requires trial courts to apprise domestic violence defendants, in advance of trial, of the serious consequences should an FRO be entered against them. “We have consistently recognized that the issuance of an FRO ‘has serious consequences to the personal and professional lives of those who are found guilty of what the Legislature has characterized as a serious crime against society. ‘” Franklin v. Sloskey, 385 N.J. Super. 534, 541 (App. Div. 2006) (quoting Bresocnik v. Gallegos, 367 N.J. Super. 178, 181 (App. Div. 2004))… “Furthermore, familial relationships may be fundamentally altered when a restraining order is in effect.” Chernesky v. Fedorczyk, 346 N.J. Super. 34, 40 (App. Div. 2001).
While all of this seems common sense, it is all now in one short, 7 page, opinion.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.