Step 1: Get the petition at the courthouse.
You can file your petition for a protection from abuse order with the Court of Common Pleas in the county where you live (permanently or temporarily), where you work, in any county where the abuser can be served (i.e., where s/he lives or works), or in the county where the abuse took place. However, if you are going to be asking the judge to remove the abuser from the home you share, you MUST file the petition in the county where your home is located.1 (To find the courthouse in the county where you plan to file, see our PA Courthouse Locations page.) Remember to bring some form of identification (a driver’s license or a picture I.D.) with you to court. You may also want to call the courthouse in advance (if you can) to see if there are certain times that petitions are presented to the judge. If you come after the scheduled time-slots, your petition may be referred to a magisterial judge for an emergency order and then you would have to return to courthouse the next day to file for the temporary PFA order.2
At the courthouse, the prothonotary will provide you with the forms that you need to file. The prothonotary may assist you with filing the papers but will not be able to give you legal advice. You will also find links to online forms at our PA Download Court Forms page.
Also, you may be able to get help through one of the domestic violence organizations listed on our PA Advocates and Shelters page.
Note: You will not be charged any fee for filing a PFA petition.3
If you need to file for an order immediately and the county courthouse is closed, call your local police department or 911 to see which magisterial district judge is on-call. S/he may be able to grant you an emergency order that will last until the next business day when you must go to the prothonotary to file for a protection from abuse order.4
1 Pa.R.C.P. 1901.1(a)-(b)
2Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, FAQs.
3 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6106(b)
4 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6110(a)-(b)
Step 2: Fill out the forms.
You will need to fill out the necessary forms including a protection from abuse (PFA) petition. On the petition, you will be the plaintiff and the abuser will be the defendant.
Read the protection from abuse petition carefully and ask questions to the courthouse staff if you don’t understand something. Describe in detail how the abuser (defendant) injured or threatened you. Explain when and where the abuse or threats occurred if he used or threatened you with a weapon, be sure to include that. Write about the most recent incident of violence, using descriptive language (e.g. slapping, hitting, grabbing, choking, threatening, etc.) that fits your situation. Be specific. Include details and dates, if possible.
Do not sign the form until you have shown it to a prothonotary. You might need to sign the form in front of a notary or a judge at the courthouse.
Step 3: A judge will review your petition and may grant you an ex parte temporary PFA.
Your petition will be given to the judge. If the judge believes that you or your children are in immediate danger, s/he may sign a temporary order. This order will stay in effect until the full hearing is heard (within ten business days) at which time you can be granted a final PFA.1 Copies of the temporary order and the petition you filed will be given to you. You will need to give a copy of the petition and the order to the sheriff so that it can be served on the abuser. You will also have to complete the sheriff’s service form. The service form gives the sheriff the information necessary to notify the defendant of the court hearing.
In some counties, someone other than the sheriff may serve the defendant.2 The prothonotary will be able to tell you this.
Remember to keep a copy of the temporary order with you at all times.
1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6107(a)-(b)
2 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6106(e)-(g)
Step 4: The hearing
Whether a judge grants you a temporary order or not, you may be given a court date for a court hearing on your petition within ten business days (assuming that your petition is not dismissed). The hearing will be in front of a judge, who will decide whether or not to give you a final PFA.1
It is very important that you attend the court hearing. If you do not go to the hearing, your temporary order will expire and you will have to start the process over. If you absolutely cannot attend, contact the prothonotary immediately and ask how you can get a “continuance” for a later court date.
If the abuser does not attend the hearing, the court may issue a “default judgment” against him/her and you may receive a final protection from abuse order in his/her absence. The judge also may decide to pick a new hearing date to give the abuser another chance to come to court. If this happens, be sure to ask the judge to extend your temporary order if you have one.
At the hearing, you will have the chance to testify in court and present evidence and witnesses to prove the abuse and harassment you have experienced. The abuser will also be allowed to be present evidence and testify in the hearing to defend himself/herself. You may want to get a lawyer to represent you at that hearing, especially if you think the abuser will have one. Go to our PA Finding a Lawyer page for a listing of free and paid lawyers. If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, you can visit our At the Hearing section for ways that you can show the judge that you were abused. You can learn more about the court system in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section.
1 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6107(a)