by Attorney and Certified Family Law Specialist Raelynn Stattner

COVID-19 continues to change the landscape of our reality as well as the day-to-day practice of family law. The pandemic has also had an impact in transforming the underlying substantive law related to the practice of family law. Recently, it has caused changes related to domestic violence laws in the state of California that will likely have far-reaching effects on family law cases.

The California Domestic Violence Protection Action (abbreviated as the “DVPA”) establishes laws to prevent domestic violence and abuse as well as provides a method for separating parties in domestic violence situations. Specifically, Family Code section 6320 of the DVPA defines the various bases which authorize the Court to issue a domestic violence restraining order for or against a party in a family law case.

One such basis is conduct by one party which “disturbs the peace of the other party.” California Family Code section 6320(a). “Disturbing the peace” generally refers to conduct which “destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party.” California Family Code section 6320(a).

Statutory law enacted as of September 29, 2020 expands the definition of “disturbing the peace” to include the concept of “coercive control.” The code section newly defines this concept as follows:

[A] pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty. Examples of coercive control include, but are not limited to, unreasonably engaging in any of the following:

(1) Isolating the other party from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.

(2) Depriving the other party of basic necessities.

(3) Controlling, regulating, or monitoring the other party’s movements, communications, daily behavior, finances, economic resources, or access to services.

(4) Compelling the other party by force, threat of force, or intimidation, including threats based on actual or suspected immigration status, to engage in conduct from which the other party has a right to abstain or to abstain from conduct in which the other party has a right to engage.

Concepts of coercive control in the context of domestic violence are nothing new. But part of the driving factor behind this new development in the law is the isolating impacts of COVID-19 as it relates to those concepts. And it appears these changes have been motivated (at least in part) by the changing circumstances and family dynamics that have resulted from COVID-19 restrictions as well as self-quarantine measures.

This is a new law in a new era in our society, so its impact and application are untested at this time. However, there is room for questions on all sides. For example, generally speaking, the Court can find domestic violence based on a single incident of abuse with the meaning of the DVPA. The new law refers to a “pattern of behavior.” This defines an entirely different standard for demonstrating domestic violence, which is a departure from the existing law related to domestic abuse. It remains to be established how many incidents of “coercive control” will show a “pattern” of such behavior under this new law.

The changes in the law are important for domestic violence victims to understand to protect themselves. This change is also important for someone defending him or herself against a domestic violence allegation. Although this is a novel change to the DVPA in California, an experienced family law attorney can help you navigate the nuances and possible pitfalls, regardless of which side you may find yourself on.