Governor Signs Law Empowering Abuse Victims In Divorce Proceedings

Apr 25, 2016

Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 12 on Thursday, which gives power to domestic violence victims seeking to divorce their spouse.
Credit Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Domestic abuse victims in Pennsylvania will no longer have to wait for as long as two years to get a divorce from spouses convicted of abuse.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation on Thursday which makes two major changes to how courts deal with domestic violence divorce proceedings.

“It allows the victim to file for divorce and the law will presume the consent of the other party if they have been convicted of committing a personal injury crime against their spouse,” Wolf said. “It also allows the victim to object to court-mandated divorce counseling.”

These changes, which take effect June 20, are “huge wins for victims,” according to Ellen Kramer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The coalition wholeheartedly welcomed the signing of this bill,” she said. “It's a huge step in our efforts to create safety for victims of domestic violence.”

The court still will hold discretion on whether to grant a divorce, according to Kramer.

If one party does not consent to a divorce, an abuser can continue to stall before the marriage is terminated under current Pennsylvanian law.

“It would be possible now for a user to block that petition for divorce for as much as two years by refusing to give consent,” said Kramer. “During those two years, whether or not the parties stay together, the victim is tethered to that abuser.”

Current law requires courts to order up to three sessions of counseling when there’s a request for divorce.  Kramer said allowing the victim to object to mandatory counseling sessions is important because counseling sessions are one location where abusers can intimidate or harass their victim, sometimes in ways only known to the couple.

Wolf stated that safety is a fundamental civil right and spousal abuse is a clear violation of that right.

“When that violation occurs for any member of the community, it occurs for every member of that community,” he said. “It violates the right of everyone to a safe society, a society in which spousal abuse is absent, we cannot tolerate that.”

The Joint State Government Commission is undertaking a review of the Protection from Abuse Act. Kramer said the coalition and local domestic violence programs will be providing input and recommendations as the commission continues to study the issue.