The Washington State Legislature enacted a new set of laws effective as of July 1, 2022, governing Protection Orders. The stated goals for these changes include streamlining the process for citizen access to the courts and creating a uniform set of forms applicable to each type of Protection Order Petition. While the Legislature’s intentions may have been pure, its new statutory scheme doesn’t adequately protect individuals against false accusations or privacy invasions.
For example, protection order petitions no longer require courts to assess fees for service on the respondent. RCW 7.105(9)(a). Though meant to assist indigent and low-income citizens, removing these fees also incentives even those with purely frivolous accusations to abuse the protection order process. Other fee waivers still exist as they did before. Former RCW 10.14.040 and RCW 10.14.055 dispensed with filing fees in certain circumstances. The same is true under the new RCW 7.105.(9)(b). Similarly, former RCW 10.14.090, like the new RCW 7.105.310(1)(j), provides for reimbursement of costs and fees to prevailing petitioners. Notably, neither rule affords a successful respondent the opportunity to recoup expenses in defending against the petition.
Another danger lurking in the amended statute concerns protection order renewals. Under the new system, if a petitioner alleges that the circumstances supporting the original order still exist, the respondent has the burden to prove a substantial change in circumstances such that the court is convinced the prior conduct will not resume. See RCW 7.105.405. Given the challenges inherent in trying to prove a negative, this standard seems particularly onerous.
The ramifications for people subjected to protection order petitions are serious. While personal safety and security should be prioritized for all individuals, Washington citizens also have the right to be free from unwarranted government intrusions into their personal lives. The threshold should not be so low that judges cannot fairly test the quality of the accusation before imposing restrictions on liberties.