Looking at CWP February stats, one can see that continuances are a common outcome for CPO cases (see graph below). Of the 69 continued cases, the volunteers recorded that at least 20 were granted because no service of process had occurred and that at least another 13 were continued due to a trailing criminal case. In this post, we are going to discuss continuances, what causes for them, why they are so common, and the effects of this procedural outcome on the parties of any given CPO case.
What are continuances?
A “continuance” refers to a procedural postponement granted or ordered by the judge for a Civil Protection Order (CPO) case in the D.C. Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Unit. A continuance can be granted at the request of either party, or the judge can also decide that a case will be continued (sua sponte—or the authority of the judge, without a party’s motion).
In general, a party’s request to continue a case should be in instances of a unforeseeable event, for example, if the Petitioner’s child is in the hospital, or, more commonly, if they were unable to serve the Respondent. So while a continuance may serve to help one or both parties adjust to an unexpected situation, the party requesting the continuance must prove that the outcome will increase the likelihood of a fair ruling, or be in the “interest of justice.”
Why are continuances so common? Continuances occur frequently in the D.C. Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Unit because they are a procedural remedy for a wide variety of circumstances. Below we have listed just a few of the common uses in CPO cases that go through the D.C. Superior Court’s Domestic Violence Unit.
A judge may choose to grant a continuance in the following instances (when a party either files a motion in written form or requests the motion verbally during the hearing):
–Petitioner states that he/she was unable to get the Respondent served with the court papers
–One party observes that the other party is represented in court; the party requests that he/she be given extra time to obtain counsel as well
–Either party has a witness or other type of evidence that is unavailable on the planned trial date.
A judge may order a continuance in the following instances:
–There are too many cases on docket (the roster of the court’s schedule of cases pending trial) for the case to take place on the planned day
–There is a trailing criminal case that the judge would like to allow precedence before continuing with the civil case (to learn about the differences between civil and criminal cases, read here or here).
What are the effects of a continuance on the parties involved? For many people, having a continuance means putting off important decisions and/or continuing a heavy burden of uncertainty for at least another two weeks.
Issues that are often associated with/exacerbated by a continuance:
–One or both parties may rely on the outcome to dictate where they can live; by putting the decision off, one or both parties—and any children/dependents involved—may be forced to stay at shelters until the issue is resolved in court
–for example, a Petitioner may need to wait for the CPO to be granted until he/she is funded by Crime Victim Compensation (CVC) for temporary housing
–for example, a Respondent may need to find out whether the judge decides to grant the portion of the CPO that would require the Respondent to vacate a shared residence
–One or both parties may rely of the outcome to decide who has temporary custody of the children (something that can be requested in a D.C. CPO—see here for a state-by-state breakdown of which other courts allow custody to be part of a CPO hearing and to what extent), or whether child support is to be paid (also an issue that can be included in the D.C. CPO, and can be streamlined with the help of OAG-CSSD)
–A Petitioner may want to flee the area to another state unknown by the Respondent, but he/she needs to stay in the D.C. area for the final court date to receive the CPO
–Any party that chooses to pay for representation may wrack up huge legal costs if a case drags on to multiple continuances
–Both parties often experience other costs and repercussions—even without attorneys; for example, each time another court date occurs, a party, if employed—is required to take time off work, and if a parent—must obtain adequate child care
What can we learn from continuances?
This post has established that while there are many reasons for continuances, there are many—often unpredictable—repercussions depending on the specific circumstances of the parties. Just by understanding these causes and effects, we can start to ask other questions about ways to maximize the utility of this procedural tool and mitigate negative consequences.
For example, are there ways that the continuance procedure in the D.C. Superior Court could be fashioned to work more in the parties’ favor? Also, how can understanding the causes and effects of continuances help us address other gaps in the court system? The issues exacerbated by continuances—such as housing and costs of work leave, child care, and representation—are systemic problems that are brought more into focus by continued trials. How can we begin to address and alleviate such issues related to continuances as well as address them in the broader civil court arena?