In a recent NJ Appellate Court decision (J.F. v. L.F.), the Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s entry of a domestic violence final restraining order in favor of a son against his mother.
Son filed a domestic violence complaint against his mother, claiming that she was harassing him by driving past his house repeatedly and by “posting” her vehicle near his house for approximately five hours on a particular occasion.
For trial purposes, both mother and son appeared before the court without counsel. The trial judge asked the mother if she wished to speak to an attorney in advance of proceeding with the trial, but she declined. Because both parties really did not understand how to proceed with the presentation of their testimony or what was viewed as relevant to the allegations being made, the trial judge took over and informally asked questions of both parties in an effort to understand what had occurred, giving rise to the filing of the complaint.
At no point during that process, did the trial court explain to either party that they had the right to cross-examine the other party on his / her claims nor did the trial judge ask the mother if she had any questions that she wanted the court to pose to her son about his harassment allegations against her.
At the end of this informal presentation of testimony, the trial judge concluded that mother had engaged in the actions alleged by her son and that under the domestic violence statute, mother had committed the predicate act of harassment by driving past her son’s house repeatedly and by “posting” her vehicle near his house for approximately five hours on a particular occasion.
After finding that mother’s actions constituted harassment and a violation of the domestic violence laws, the trial judge also found that a final domestic violence restraining order was needed to prevent further abuse by the mother (referred to as the 2nd prong of the Silver-Test).
The appellate court reversed the entry of the final restraining order and sent the matter back to the trial court for a new trial, finding that the trial judge had conducted the trial in too informal a fashion, given the consequences of the entry of a final restraining order and because it was clear that the mother did not understand her right to cross-examine her son on his harassment claims and that she did not understand how to properly present her defense to those claims (the reason her actions should not have been viewed as harassment under the statute).