Step 1: Get the necessary forms.
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.
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 Advocates and Shelters page to find help in your area.
Step 2: Carefully fill out the forms.
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.1 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.
1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4(a)(2); 15-15-4(a)(2)
Step 3: A judge will review your application.
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.1
Note: If you received a temporary order, you should keep a copy of it with you at all times.
1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4(a)(2); 15-15-4(a)(2)
Step 4: Service of process
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 certified constable, but then there would be a fee.1 The deputy sheriff or certified 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.2 However, you may want to follow up with the deputy sheriff or certified 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.3
If, at the time of the final hearing, the deputy sheriff or certified 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:
- by certified and regular mail at the defendant’s place of employment or last known address (not including the residence which s/he has been ordered to vacate as part of the restraining order);
- by leaving copies of the papers at the defendant’s home with a person of “suitable age and discretion” (not a young child, for example); or
- by publication in a newspaper for two weeks in a row.4
The judge will then set a new date for the hearing on the complaint and extend the temporary order until that date.4
1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4.2(a); 15-15-4.1(a)
2 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4.2(b),(c); 15-15-4.1(b),(c)
3 RI Gen. Laws §15-15-4.1(a)
4 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-4.2(d); 15-15-4.1(d)
You can find more information about service of process in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section, in the question called What is service of process and how do I accomplish it?
Step 5: The hearing
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 the judge 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:
- the length of time of the relationship;
- the type of relationship you had; and
- how often you both interacted with each other.1
You may want to think through how you would prove these factors ahead of time in case the defendant tries to deny that you had a serious dating relationship. For example, you may want to bring cards or love letters s/he wrote to you, loving voicemails or texts, witnesses who can testify about your relationship, etc.
For additional tips, see the At the Hearing page for ways you can show the judge that you were abused. You may want to strongly consider getting a lawyer to help with your case, especially if the abuser has a lawyer. If the abuser shows up with a lawyer, you can ask the judge for a “continuance” (a later court date) so that you have time to find a lawyer. To find a lawyer in your area, please visit the RI Finding a Lawyer page.
1 RI Gen. Laws §§ 8-8.1-1(5); 15-15-1(10)