Pennsylvania's Protection from Abuse Act is not clear about who may serve and who must not serve, a PFA order. Except in certain cases where the PFA defendant presents a special danger, the Act simply leaves service of the PFA order to personal judgment and local practice. The Act's Section 6106(e) does, however, grant the court authority to “adopt a means of prompt and effective service in those instances where the plaintiff avers that service cannot be safely effected by an adult individual other than a law enforcement officer or where the court so orders.” That provision Section 6106(e) generally refers to service of the complaint at the commencement of proceedings rather than service of the PFA order, although courts may in those cases also provide for safe service of the PFA order.
Typical Service of a PFA Order. If you participated in the hearing at which the judge issued the PFA order, then you may get the PFA order right in court. If instead, you receive a PFA order against you when you didn't attend any hearing, you may get it from the separated spouse, ex-spouse, or other party who obtained it against you. Yet service from the protected party is obviously problematic in many cases, given the presumed danger that the defendant presents to that party. You may thus instead receive the order from the local police or the county sheriff, who may have an officer designated to carry out service of process. In other words, police may show up at your home or workplace to present you with the PFA order. If police do not serve the order, then you may receive it from a friend or other family member of the plaintiff who obtained the order against you. Don't be surprised if the plaintiff's parent, co-worker, or friend hands you the PFA order.
Statutory Language. Pennsylvania's Protection from Abuse Act has a specific Section 6108.9 titled “Service of Orders” that nonetheless does not say who may or who must not serve a PFA order. The Act's Section 6108.9(a) provides simply, “A copy of an order under this chapter shall be issued to the plaintiff, the defendant and the police department with appropriate jurisdiction to enforce the order or agreement in accordance with the provisions of this chapter or as ordered by the court or hearing officer.” Notice the statute's passive language “shall be issued to” the defendant. That passive language doesn't say who does the issuing. The Act is simply open as to service of the PFA order.
The Significance of Service. The Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act's ambiguity about who serves a PFA order is somewhat surprising given the significance of service. Service of a PFA order is a significant step. Service means to place the PFA order in the restrained defendant's hands or to otherwise bring the PFA order to the defendant's reasonable attention, complying with the court's rules for service. 210 Pa. Code Rule 122 provides for the content and form of a “proof of service” that a party would file with the court showing the court that the defendant had received the court pleading or order. Once the court has proof of the defendant's service, the court can enforce the PFA order presuming that the defendant knew of it and should have complied with it. Service, in other words, is a big step toward placing the defendant securely under a PFA order's restrictions.
Valid from Issuance. Yet don't think that just because you avoided service of a PFA order that you're not subject to it. Another section of Pennsylvania's Protection from Abuse Act, Section 6106 titled “Commencement of Proceedings,” is equally ambiguous about service of PFA orders. Section 6106(g) provides in familiar passive language that “orders shall be served upon the defendant, and orders shall be served upon the police departments and sheriff with appropriate jurisdiction to enforce the orders.” Yet Section 6106(g) adds that “[f]ailure to serve shall not stay the effect of a valid order.” As soon as the court issues the PFA order, the PFA order is effective. If you learn of a PFA order, even without having received service of it, you should promptly comply. Your innocent ignorance of a PFA order may relieve you from a contempt sanction for violating it, but the PFA order is still effective.
The Difference Between a Complaint and Order. Understand, too, that service of a PFA complaint is different from service of a PFA order. Civil proceedings like a PFA proceeding begin with the plaintiff filing a complaint with the court and, one way or another, serving the complaint on the defendant. The court may issue an emergency PFA order before the plaintiff serves the defendant with the complaint to protect the plaintiff from the defendant's adverse, even violent, action that a complaint could trigger. The court may also issue a temporary PFA order after service of the complaint on the defendant before a final hearing. But courts typically issue final PFA orders after a full hearing at which the defendant had due opportunity to contest the PFA request. In short, service of a final PFA order is generally the last step in the initial round of a PFA proceeding, while service of the PFA complaint is the first step.
What to Do About Service. Because Section 6106(g) makes a PFA order effective from issuance rather than from service, you generally shouldn't make any attempt to dodge service of a PFA order. Nor should you generally try to dodge service of a PFA complaint. Instead, you should want to know what proceeding the plaintiff has begun against you and what orders, if any, the plaintiff may have obtained. Don't dodge service. Accept both the complaint and any emergency, temporary, or final PFA order obtained against you. Read what others serve on you in the proceeding. Don't ignore or run from a PFA proceeding. Instead, face the music promptly and forthrightly so that you can make the best of a potentially bad situation.
Get Expert Attorney Help. At the same time, promptly retain an expert Pennsylvania PFA defense attorney. Your best approach is generally to aggressively and effectively defend a PFA proceeding with the representation of an expert PFA defense attorney. Ignoring it is no solution because once PFA orders enter, they can be very difficult to amend or reverse, and they can quickly become court records available for disclosure. Indeed, if you are able, you shouldn't wait until PFA proceedings have already begun against you before you retain and consult an attorney. As soon as you anticipate a potential PFA proceeding against you, contact Pennsylvania PFA attorney Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm. Attorney Lento and the expert team at the Lento Law Firm may be able to advise you of steps you can take to minimize the conflict. Attorney Lento may also be able to negotiate with the other side or the other side's attorney to avoid a PFA order.
When you get professional help, instead of just letting things happen, it may be possible to avoid a PFA proceeding altogether, and especially possible to avoid a final PFA order. Don't dodge service. Hire attorney Joseph D. Lento. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888.535.3686 or online for a prompt consultation with Attorney Lento.