Communication challenges in family violence court : an ethnography of protective order hearings
Richardson, Emily Ann
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This study provided an in-depth and immersive field study of the process of protective order hearings. The goal of this study was to examine the communication taking place in the courtroom on Protective Order (PO) day to provide a foundation for uncovering discourse dynamics that affect the experiences of applicants and respondents, as well as the role that legal decision makers play in the process of issuing protective orders for cases of family violence. There are numerous ways in which communication defines and affects the protective order process in the courtroom on PO Day. For the purpose of this study, the focus consisted of communication surrounding 1.) The institutionalized process (role of gatekeepers, access to representation by respondents, and the physical structure/environment of the courtroom---open, public, and fast-paced nature of the docket process), and 2.) Communication as the primary means of evidence (how communication constitutes credibility and the fact that applicants must face their alleged batterer in order to obtain an order of protection). This study focused on viewing institutional discourse in protective order hearings that extends beyond the official legal record in order to broaden our understanding of legal behavior, family violence, and discursive characteristics of the Protective Order courtroom culture. The analysis consisted of macro (immersive ethnographic fieldwork and detailed observations) and micro approaches (Action-Implicative Discourse Analysis). The findings uncovered multiple layers of communication challenges that manifested themselves in all steps of the PO process. Environmental communication challenges were present from the moment applicants initiated the application process and continued through their respective hearings. The physical space presented challenges to access and representation, and the gatekeepers provided differing (and sometimes unequal) levels of support for the applicants and respondents. The functional communication challenges stemmed from the constraints of the legal language to meet the necessary burden of proof for cases of family violence. Implications for future research by communication scholars, as well as for practitioners who work with victims and alleged batterers of family violence, are discussed.