Know the Laws: Rhode Island
UPDATED January 16, 2015
A restraining order is a civil order that provides protection from harm by someone who is or was a family member, cohabitant, or someone who you date or used to date.
A restraining order is a court order that is issued by a judge in civil court – either in family court or district court. It is basically a paper which that is signed by a judge and tells the abuser to stop the abuse or face serious legal consequences. It offers civil legal protection from domestic violence to both women and men victims and a violation of the order can be a crime.
In Rhode Island, there are two courts that issue restraining orders: district court and family court. Your relationship to the abuser will determine which court you file in, as is explained in the rest of this section. Also, the type of relief you can get in the restraining order will be slightly different in family court than in district court.
This section defines domestic abuse for the purposes of getting a restraining order in family court and in district court.If you have the type of relationship to the abuser (explained below), domestic abuse is when the abuser commits one of the following acts against you:
Note: If you fall into categories 1 through 6a (above), you would file in family court. If you fall into categories 6b or 7, you would file in district court.* RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-1(5)(iv)-(vi),(4),(6),(8); 15-15-1(2),(6)-(8); see also "complaint for protection from abuse" form at RI Gen Laws §§ 8-8.1-6; 15-15-6
Both family court and district court offer temporary restraining orders and final restraining orders. These restraining orders may go by different names in different counties. They may also be called protective orders. Here are the differences between the orders:
An emergency order is an ex parte temporary order that can be granted if the courts are closed and you need immediate protection.* (Ex parte means one-sided, without the abuser being notified or present.) If you need an emergency restraining order, you can contact your local police department for help. A judge may grant you a temporary order over the phone to a police officer. If you receive an emergency order over the phone, it expires at the close of the next business day. You will have to go to court to get a standard temporary order, which will last for up to three weeks, until your full court hearing for a final restraining order.
Temporary ex parte restraining orders are designed to offer you emergency protection until the full court hearing for your final restraining order. To get a temporary, ex parte order, you would file your complaint in court during normal court business hours. The judge must believe (after reading your affidavit / verified complaint), that immediate and severe injury, loss, or damage will happen to you if you don’t get a restraining order that day. A temporary order generally lasts for up to 21 days. The court can extend it if the final court hearing gets adjourned beyond the 21 days.**
A final restraining order can be issued only after a full court hearing in which you and the abuser both have a chance to present evidence and testimony to prove your sides of the story.** If the abuser doesn’t appear at the hearing, you can still get a final restraining order as long as s/he was given proper notice of the hearing. A final restraining order lasts up to three years. You can also later file to have it extended for any amount of time that the judge believes is necessary to protect you.*** See How do I change or extend my order?
* RI Gen. Laws § 15-15-4(b); § 8-8.1-4(b)
** RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4(a)(2); 15-15-4(a)(2)
*** RI Gen. Laws §§ 8.8-1.3(i); 15-15-3(h)(2)
The things that a judge can order in a restraining order depends, in part, on who you are filing against and which court you are filing in (district court or family court). To figure out which court you have to file in, go to What is the legal definition of domestic abuse in RI?
If you get a restraining order in district court, the judge can order the abuser to:
* RI Gen. Laws § 8-8.1-3(a),(f),(h)
** RI Gen. Laws §15-15-3(a),(f)
You can file a petition in the family court or in the district court (depending on your relationship to the abuser) in the county where you live. If you have moved to another county to avoid further abuse, you can file in that county no matter how long you have been living there.* However, if you are trying to keep your new address confidential, filing in the county where you have fled to would likely not be a good idea since it would alert the abuser to the fact that you are living in that county.
* RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-2(a);15-15-2(a),(d)
Your eligibility in filing for a restraining order depends upon whether you meet the legal definition of domestic abuse and what your relationship is to the abuser. Your relationship also determines whether you file in family court or district court.
You can be eligible to file for a restraining order in family court if you or your minor child has been the victim of an act of domestic abuse, as defined by law, committed by:
In Rhode Island, you may apply for a restraining order against a current or former same-sex partner as long as the relationship meets the requirements listed in Am I eligible for a restraining order? Do I file in family court or district court? You must also be the victim of an act of domestic abuse, which is explained here What is the legal definition of domestic abuse in Rhode Island?
There are no fees for filing for a restraining order.*
You do not need a lawyer to file for a restraining order. However, you may wish to have a lawyer, especially if the abuser has a lawyer. If you cannot get a lawyer to represent you, you may want to at least try to contact a lawyer before your final hearing for advice to help make ensure that your legal rights are protected. If you cannot afford a lawyer but want one to help you with your case, you can find information on legal assistance on the RI Finding a Lawyer page. Domestic violence organizations in your area also may be able to help you through the legal process and may have lawyer referrals – you can find those organizations on our RI State and Local Programs page.
* RI Gen. Laws §§ 8.8-1.2(a), 15-15-2(c)
If you don’t qualify for a restraining order, there may still be other options for you. First, remember that the abuser may be committing a crime, which you can report to the police and s/he may be arrested. If s/he is arrested and prosecuted for a crime involving domestic violence (see list below), the judge will issue a no contact order when s/he is arraigned (formally charged in court). The no contact order would prohibit him/her from having any contact with you. You do not have to file for the order yourself – the judge would issue it on your behalf without you being present.*
The following crimes are considered domestic violence crimes (and could get you a no contact order) when committed by your family or household member (and many of the definitions of these crimes are on our RI Statutes page):
Note: “Family or household member” means spouses, former spouses, adults related by blood or marriage, adults who are presently living together or who have lived together at some point in the past 3 years, and people who have a child in common together (regardless of whether they have been married or have lived together), or people who are or have been in a serious dating or engagement relationship within the past year.***
Another way to get a restraining order could be through your employer who can file for a workplace restraining order based on violence, threats, or stalking committed against you by anyone, regardless of your relationship to that person. Go to our Workplace Restraining Orders page for more information.
* RI Gen. Laws § 12-29-4(a)(1)
** RI Gen. Laws § 12-29-2(a)
*** RI Gen. Laws § 12-29-2(b)
To start your case, you will go to either the family court or district court in the county where you live or are currently staying. You will get the necessary forms from the clerk at the courthouse and fill them out. To find contact information for the courthouse in your area, go to our RI Courthouse Locations page.
You can find the forms from the clerk at the courthouse, but you may want to get the forms from our RI Download Court Forms page and find them before you go and fill them out at home or with an advocate from a shelter or local organization. You will find links to forms online on the RI Download Court Forms page.
Most shelters and other domestic violence organizations can provide support for you while you fill out these papers and go to court. Please visit RI State and Local Programs page to find help in your area.
On the complaint, you will be the plaintiff or petitioner and the abuser will be the defendant or the respondent, depending on whether you are in district court or family court.
In the box provided for explaining why you want the restraining order, write about the most recent incidents of violence, using specific language (slapping, hitting, grabbing, threatening, etc.) that fits your situation. Include details and dates, if possible. You may also have to provide an accurate physical description of the abuser and an address where s/he can be found so the order can be served. Clerks can show you which blanks to fill in, but they cannot help you decide what to write. Do not sign the complaint or affidavit until you have shown it to a clerk, since the forms may need to be notarized or signed in the presence of court personnel.
If you need immediate protection, tell the clerk that you want to apply for a temporary ex parte restraining order (which would be issued the very same day). A judge can grant you a temporary ex parte order if the judge believes that you or your child is in danger of immediate and severe injury, loss, or damage.* Note: The abuser does not have to be with you or be told beforehand that you are asking the judge for a temporary restraining order. However, the order is not valid until it is served on the abuser.
* RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4(a)(2); 15-15-4(a)(2)
After you finish filling out your application for the restraining order, bring it to the court clerk. The clerk will forward it to a judge. The judge may wish to ask you questions as s/he reviews your complaint. Based on what you write in the complaint, the judge will decide whether to issue an immediate temporary order. The decision will be based on whether or not you and/or your child is at risk for immediate and severe injury, damage or loss. The judge will then set a date for a hearing for the final order. You will be given papers that state the time and date of your hearing for a final order. The hearing should be scheduled to happen within 21 days.
Note: If you received a temporary order, you should keep a copy of it with you at all times.
Your restraining order is not valid until the abuser has been served with a copy of it. The abuser must also be served with legal notice of hearing and with a copy of the complaint that you filed against him/her. A deputy sheriff has to serve the abuser, by law, for free. Another option for service is that you could hire a constable, but then there would be a fee.* The deputy sheriff or constable would then send the “return of service” form to the court before the hearing date (and send a copy to you), which proves that the abuser was served in case s/he doesn’t show up at the hearing.** However, you may want to follow up with the deputy sheriff or constable before the court date to make sure that this was done. Do not try and serve the abuser in person with the papers yourself. Note: If the defendant is a minor, the complaint and any order must also be personally served upon a parent or guardian of the minor.***
If, at the time of the final hearing, the deputy sheriff or constable has been unable to serve the defendant personally after a diligent (thorough) effort, the judge may order an alternate method of service. For example, the judge can order service:
If you do not go to the hearing, your temporary order will expire. If the abuser does not show up for the hearing, the judge may still grant you a final restraining order (if the “return of service” form was received by the court) or may reschedule the hearing.
You may have to prove that you have the required relationship to the defendant, especially if the defendant denies the relationship. To prove a serious dating relationship, for example, the judge will look at:
Here are some things you may want to consider doing. However, you will have to evaluate each one to see if it works for your situation.
One week after court, you may want to call your local law enforcement offices to make sure they have received copies of the restraining order from the clerk.
You may also wish to make a safety plan. People can do a number of things to increase their safety during violent incidents, when preparing to leave an abusive relationship, and when they are at home, work, and school. Many abusers obey restraining orders, but some do not, and it is important to build on the things you have already been doing to keep yourself safe. Click on the following link for suggestions on Staying Safe. Also, advocates at local domestic violence organizations can assist you in designing a safety plan and can provide other forms of support. To find a shelter or advocate in your area please visit the RI State and Local Programs page.
If you are not granted a restraining order, there are still some things you can do to stay safe. It might be a good idea to contact one of the domestic violence resource centers in your area to get help, support, and advice on how to stay safe. They can help you develop a safety plan and help connect you with the resources you need. For safety planning help, ideas, and information, go to our Staying Safe page. You will find a list of Rhode Island resources on our RI State Resources page.
If you were not granted a family or district court restraining order because your relationship with the abuser does not qualify, you may be able to seek protection through a criminal no-contact order (if you report the crime to the police and s/he is arrested) or through your a workplace restraining order. You will find more information about this on our What if I don't qualify for a restraining order? page. You may also be able to reapply for a restraining order if a new incident of domestic abuse occurs after you are denied the order.
If you believe the judge made an error of law, you can talk to a lawyer about the possibility of an appeal. Generally, appeals are complicated, and you will most likely need the help of a lawyer. You can read more about appeals on our Filing Appeals page.
Violating a restraining order can be a crime. There are 2 main ways to get help if the abuser violates your order.
1. Through the Police or Sheriff (Criminal System)
If the defendant violates the restraining order, you can call 911 immediately. In some cases, the defendant can be arrested right away. Tell the officers you have a restraining order and the defendant is violating it. If the defendant is arrested, then the Attorney General can prosecute the abuser because it is a crime to violate a restraining order. If found guilty of a violation of a restraining order, the defendant can be punished by a fine of as much as $1,000 and/or by up to 1 year in jail, and may be ordered to attend counseling.*
2. Through the Civil Court System (Civil System)
You may file for civil contempt for a violation of the order. The abuser can be "held in civil contempt" if s/he or she does anything that your restraining order orders him/her not to do. To file for civil contempt, go to the clerk's office and ask for the forms.
* See RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-7; 15-15-7
If you want to modify (change) your order, you would go back to the court where you got the order and file a modification petition with the clerk. You will have to repeat the hearing process and explain to the judge why the order should be changed in the way you are requesting.
To extend your order, you would go back to the court where you got the order and file a renewal petition with the clerk. You must request this renewal before your order expires.* A judge may extend your order by granting a renewal for any period of time that the judge believes is necessary to protect you from abuse.** You may have your order renewed more than once.
* RI Gen Laws § 8-8.1-7
** RI Gen Laws §§ 8-8.1-3(i); 15-15-3(h)(2)
Whether you move within Rhode Island or to another US state or territory, your order will still be valid and enforceable. You might want to call the court clerk to change your address in the court file so that you can be contacted if the abuser files for a modification or if the court needs to reach you for any reason. However, be sure to ask the clerk that your address be kept confidential if the abuser doesn’t know where you will be living.
Note: If you are moving to a military installation, see our Military Protective Orders for information on enforcing a civil protection order on a military installation.