Advocates for victims of domestic violence said the state’s novel approach is a major step forward, but others are worried that the law is so broad that courts are being strained by the requests and that some are seemingly frivolous or calculated to gain leverage in pending litigation, such as child-custody suits.
“It’s had a big impact,” said Donald P. McDonough, chief judge of Fairfax County General District Court. “We’re receiving many valid requests. In all candor, we are also seeing some unusual cases as well.”
The spur for the change was the high-profile death in 2010 of University of Virginia student Yeardley Love, whose ex-boyfriend, George Huguely, goes on trial this week on murder charges in the killing. The case touched off a national debate on how Virginia handled restraining orders, or protective orders as they are known in the state.
Domestic-violence groups said that it would have been difficult for Love to get a protective order against Huguely under Virginia’s old law, which they deemed one of the least progressive in the nation.
Unlike the vast majority of states, Virginia did not have a provision that allowed those in dating relationships to get a protective order. Requests could be made by family or household members and victims in cases in which an arrest warrant had been issued for stalking, sexual battery or assault.
In reworking the law, Virginia legislators went beyond adding a dating provision — and further than most states. They focused on the abusive or threatening behavior as the criteria, rather than the relationship between the parties. That has allowed virtually anyone alleging abuse or threats of violence to apply for a protective order. And that’s precisely what has happened.
“It’s sort of opened the floodgates,” said General District Court Clerk Nancy L. Lake.
The state’s General District Courts were designated to handle these non-family restraining orders. Fairfax processed three times more requests for restraining orders in 2011 as compared with 2010, officials said. The court dedicated a clerk to process the paperwork. And the new law only went into effect in July.
Statewide, the number of restraining orders the courts granted jumped 17 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, according to the Virginia State Police. About 70,000 orders were granted last year. Police were not able to calculate how much of the increase was the result of the new law but said it probably played a large role.