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New law targets abusive litigation by domestic violence perpetrators


Some domestic violence survivors say they face abuse in the courts, even long after they’ve severed ties with their partner. A new Washington law, which took effect Jan. 1, seeks to stop what’s known as “abusive litigation.”

Catherine West is an attorney with the advocacy group Legal Voice. She said a survivor of domestic violence can be continually dragged into court by an ex-partner, ostensibly to challenge a protection order or child custody agreement. But, West said, the real purpose is often just to get the survivor in the courtroom.


“They have to confront their former partner. It’s really a way of continuing to exert control,” West said.


She said the law won't keep people from being able to access the courts. She said it only rises to the level of abusive litigation if a person, say, repeatedly files motions in different courts or in front of different judges to try and get an additional hearing after a judge has already ruled on a set of facts.


“It’s really then that it has crossed the line into wasting the court’s time and really harassing the survivor,” she said.


Survivors like Amber Rosewood told lawmakers during a legislative hearing last year that the experience of having to constantly go to court was exhausting and financially draining. 


“And, because this has continued for years after the abuse I cannot heal and I cannot begin to deal with the other things he has done to me,” Rosewood said.


The law gives judges the discretion to determine if filings by a domestic violence perpetrator against a former partner amount to abusive litigation.


Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island


State Sen. Christine Rolfes, who sponsored the legislation that created the law, said she decided to introduce it after hearing from a constituent, a domestic violence survivor, who was “being bankrupted by an abusive lawsuit from her ex-husband." She said as she looked into the issue, more victims came forward to tell their stories.


Now that the law is in place, advocates say the challenge during the pandemic is educating domestic violence survivors and judges in the state about it. Washington is among the first states to pass such a law.


Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.