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What is the difference between domestic violence and civil harassment?

UPDATED: June 19, 2018

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Domestic violence cases are often confused with civil harassment cases. Civil harassment occurs when one person annoys, harasses, injures, or threatens another person. However, a civil harassment case does not have to meet the relationship test established for domestic violence. Domestic violence cases can often be more volatile than civil harassment cases. Because of the special relationship between the parties, a domestic violence case often results in greater harm caused by one person against the other.

Misconceptions Regarding Domestic Violence and Civil Harassment

A common misconception about domestic violence is that it is a subcategory of civil harassment. However, civil harassment references its own particular type of “violence” or “harassment.” Domestic violence concerns the sphere of violent or abusive actions that are perpetrated by and on family members or couples. The relationships between victims and perpetrators are important parts of this definition. Civil harassment also refers to many different types and varieties of violence and abuse, but only those acts that are non-domestic in nature can form the basis for a civil harassment case. Thus domestic violence isn’t a subcategory of civil harassment, but domestic violence and civil harassment are complementary categories in U.S. jurisprudence.

Domestic Violence vs. Civil Harassment: An Example

This issue is highlighted clearly when one seeks to obtain a civil harassment order. Civil harassment orders are often more difficult to obtain than domestic violence orders, because in civil harassment cases, there is no particular relationship established, or required, between the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator. Where the parties are intimately involved, the domestic violence order, also more commonly called a restraining order, does require the establishment of a certain type and level of relationship.

Though this description might suggest that civil harassment orders would be easier to obtain than domestic violence orders, this is untrue. Civil harassment orders require that an actual or reasonable threat of harm be established. If no relationship has been established between the two parties beforehand, or as part of obtaining the order itself, then making a showing for actual or reasonable threat of harm can be difficult. For instance, verbal harassment is rarely considered sufficient to justify a civil harassment order, whereas verbal harassment in a domestic violence situation can easily amount to emotional abuse, and by itself may justify a restraining order.

Many states have different procedures for domestic violence and civil harassment. In addition, the available remedies for a domestic violence case may differ from the remedies available in a civil harassment case. If you are feeling threatened by another person, whether you are in a relationship of some kind or not, you should seek legal assistance immediately. There are free domestic violence counselors and low cost domestic violence attorneys available in almost every jurisdiction.

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