Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Domestic Abuse Study Commission issues report and recommendations

December 17, 2008

A commission created by order of the Mississippi Supreme Court to study laws and rules related to domestic abuse has issued its recommendations.

The Commission for Study of Domestic Abuse Proceedings presented its report, containing 10 recommendations, to the Mississippi Supreme Court on Dec. 11, 2008. The Supreme Court forwarded the report to the Mississippi Attorney General and the chairmen of the Judiciary Committees of the Mississippi Senate and the Mississippi House of Representatives on Dec. 16.

A copy of the entire report is available at:

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Ann H. Lamar of Senatobia and Special Assistant Attorney General Heather Wagner of Jackson are co-chairs of the 23-member Study Commission.

Justice Lamar and Wagner said in the report’s introduction, “It is our sincere hope that this report will provide insight and guidance which will lead to improvement in our justice system in the critically important area of domestic violence.”

The Study Commission report identified three areas of concern: lack of adequate access of victims to the courts, lack of uniformity in proceedings and pleadings, and confusion in the interaction between the courts having jurisdiction in domestic abuse proceedings.

“After first identifying the concerns, the discussions of the Commission centered around ways to improve the process in order to balance the competing views of victim safety and access, maintaining the integrity of the judicial system and judicial economy,” says the commission report.

Some of the commission’s discussion focused on the Mississippi Protection from Domestic Abuse Act, Miss. Code Ann. §93-21-1 et seq. The commission report noted, “Originally enacted in 1981, the Act has undergone many changes over the years, but has never been subject to a thorough, wholesale review. The discussions of the Commission covered a variety of issues relevant to the current statutory processes which impact the safety of victims, the efficiency of the court system, and due process.”

The report pointed out that under current Mississippi law, a victim of domestic abuse can obtain a protection order from five different levels of the court system: Municipal, Justice, County, Circuit and Chancery courts. The intent of allowing multiple courts to have jurisdiction was to increase access to protection for victims. However, this created confusion for the victims and the courts.

The recommendations of the report are:

1. That domestic abuse petitions no longer be filed in Circuit Court.

2. Grant Municipal Courts authority to address civil matters under the Protection from Domestic Abuse Act. Municipal Court jurisdiction is currently limited to criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors and violations of municipal ordinances.

3. Require that all petitions for emergency ex parte relief be initiated in Municipal, Justice or County courts. Ex parte petitions are those filed with the court without notice to an adverse party.

4. Extend the effective period for temporary domestic abuse protection orders to 30 days after a hearing. Ten days is the current effective period.

5. Permit an expedited de novo appeal hearing for any party wishing to contest a domestic abuse protection order from Municipal or Justice Court. A de novo hearing is a new hearing in which the reviewing court treats the matter as if it originated in that court.

6. Limit the courts which may issue final orders and hear de novo appeals of domestic violence protection orders to Chancery and County Courts.

7. Enact a time limitation of 180 days on temporary custody, visitation and support provisions contained in final protective orders. Currently there is no time limitation.

8. Enact stronger language prohibiting the issuance of mutual orders. A mutual order is an order containing provisions against both the respondent and the petitioner, even when the respondent has not requested any relief, and has not presented any evidence of being a victim.

9. Enact legislation which would permit the use of electronic filing and electronic proceedings in domestic abuse protective order matters.

10. That the Legislature further study venue statutes with regard to where victims of domestic violence may file court proceedings seeking protection. The Study Commission did not reach a consensus on the issue of venue. Victims of domestic violence under current law must file for a protective order in a court in the county where the abuse occurred or where the person accused of doing the abuse may be found. The Study Commission discussed concerns about victims who flee their home counties out of fear of their abuser.

Although it did not make a specific recommendation, the Study Commission called for further review of standardization of forms to be used in proceedings seeking protective orders.

The Study Committee expressed concern about access to the courts by victims of domestic violence who are poor and cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The report said this issue is being addressed by the Access to Justice Commission within the larger context of access to the civil courts by poor people.

The report stated that a majority of the victims of domestic violence who file petitions seeking court-ordered protection from an abuser come into court without the assistance of an attorney. People who represent themselves without the assistance of an attorney are known as pro se litigants.

The report said, “It was reported by advocates who work directly with victims of domestic violence that many times, a victim needing protection from domestic violence is instructed by the court that they must have an attorney representing them before they can proceed. There are limited resources currently available to assist victims in need of an attorney. In only three locations around the state are there civil legal clinics designed specifically to assist victims of domestic violence with their legal needs, ranging from obtaining orders of protection to divorces to custody matters.”

The report pointed out that there are only 13 domestic violence shelters in the state.

In discussing which courts should have jurisdiction over issuance of domestic violence protective orders, the report said, “In many counties, particularly in the more rural areas of the state, access to a court is a real concern for many victims, and having a greater number of courts from which to seek protection may mean the difference between getting an order in an emergency situation and doing without one. The fact that different areas of the state have different resources available for victims of domestic abuse complicates this situation, not only with regard to private resources such as a domestic violence program, but also with regard to court resources. A victim who lives in a jurisdiction in which there is a domestic violence program who can assist him or her and in which there are judges available every day of the week is likely to have a much better chance of obtaining protection than a victim who does not live in a jurisdiction where an advocacy program is nearby or where the courts may not be available every day.”

The Mississippi Supreme Court, acting on a request from the Attorney General, created the Commission for Study of Domestic Abuse Proceedings in an order signed May 21 by Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr.

Commission Co-chair Heather Wagner, who serves as the Director of the Domestic Violence Division of the Attorney General's Office, said, “We are grateful for the support of the Supreme Court in creating the Commission, and honored to have been a part of this very positive step in improving the safety of victims of domestic violence in Mississippi. The Attorney General's Office looks forward to continuing the momentum of the Commission and addressing unresolved issues identified in its final report.”

The Supreme Court did not take a position with regard to the recommendations of the Commission. The Supreme Court expressed its gratitude to the Commission for its work, which was concluded with the issuance of the report.

Other members of the Commission for Study of Domestic Abuse Proceedings include: University of Mississippi School of Law Professor Deborah Bell; Mississippi College School of Law Professor Shirley Kennedy; Court of Appeals Judge Virginia Carlton of Columbia; Chancery Judges Margaret Alfonso of Gulfport, Jaye Bradley of Lucedale, and Cynthia Brewer of Madison County; Circuit Judges Margaret Carey-McCray of Greenville, Vernon Cotten of Carthage, and Kenneth Thomas of Cleveland; Justice Court Judge Deborah Gambrell of Hattiesburg; Municipal Judge John Shirley of Pearl; Gulfport Assistant City Prosecutor Martha Carson; Assistant District Attorney Kassie Ann Coleman of Hattiesburg; Hinds County Public Defender William LaBarre; Hinds County Assistant Public Defender Lynn Watkins; Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Ken Winter of Oxford; Catholic Charities Legal Assistance Clinic Senior Attorney and Program Manager Brandi Brown of Jackson; Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Anna Walker Crump of Jackson; Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford; Rep. Kimberly Campbell of Jackson; and Mississippi Judicial College Director Cynthia Davis of Oxford.