A review of a judge's decision in a Hampton domestic violence case found her ruling 'reasonable.'
A special committee formed to review found Judge Polly Hall properly applied the law in her handling of a Hampton domestic violence case when she denied an order of protection in October.
The committee also found Hall properly applied a series of prior legal precedents handed down by the state Supreme Court, but the committee identified a series of possible reforms, including an update on how “abuse” is defined in New Hampshire statute.
The plaintiff in the case, a 33-year old woman from Hampton, had sought a domestic violence order of protection against Richard Lorman, alleging repeated acts of sexual violence and physical threats.
Less than a month after Judge Hall denied the order citing a lack of “credible present threat” to the plaintiff, Lorman shot the woman in the head before killing himself in Salem, Massachusetts.
A six-person committee, created by Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald and overseen by Judge Susan Carbon, released a 40-page report Tuesday that found Hall handled the case appropriately.
“Considering the facts of the case as the trial court understood them, the Committee found that [the] court made a decision which was consistent with a reasonable understanding of the law,” the report authors wrote.
The review, however, noted that “a different judge, hearing the same evidence, could have reasonably determined” that Lorman’s threats were credible, and therefore awarded the domestic violence protection order.
In addition, the current definition of "abuse," the authors wrote, “does not appear to recognize how a pattern of seemingly non-violent or non-abusive behaviors may serve as a precursor to violence.”
The Nov. 15 shooting, which the plaintiff survived, raised concerns from some domestic violence advocates that the court had erred when it rejected the petition.
“No one can dispute that the victim, in this case, was in extreme danger, and the system failed her when she courageously looked to the courts for help,” N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence executive director Lyn Schollett wrote in a statement.
“This review affirms that the courts are not using the very plain language of the statute to make common-sense decisions in protective order cases,” and that judges are relying on a “fundamental misunderstanding of domestic violence.”
In a written affidavit and during an in-person hearing on Oct. 20, the plaintiff, who was not represented by an attorney, outlined a series of threats made by Lorman, as well as descriptions of sexual violence and a photograph of bruises caused by him in 2016.
The parties had previously lived together until the plaintiff moved to Massachusetts.
“I think he’s had control over me for so many years, that loss of control is, I do not feel safe,” the plaintiff told the court.
Hall, who was interviewed by the committee during its review, said her ruling relied, in part, on a 2020 decision in another case in which the Supreme Court overturned a domestic violence petition.
In that case, the court concluded that the plaintiff had not established “that she had more than a generalized fear of the defendant” despite previous physical abuse, which doesn’t meet the current legal threshold for a domestic violence order.
In addition to explaining Hall’s rationale, the committee found that Hall’s conduct and interactions with the plaintiff during the hearing in October followed judicial branch expectations and that she “exemplified the principles of procedural fairness.”
In its report, the committee called for a review of the current statute, which it wrote failed to take into account a more modern understanding of intimate partner violence within domestic relationships.
“A victim of even severe, pervasive [intimate partner violence] will not be eligible for an order of protection if the defendant’s conduct does not fit within the restrictive definition of abuse outlined in New Hampshire law,” the authors wrote.
The committee also recommended that certain court forms be updated to give more explicit instructions to plaintiffs and that the courts undertake a review of how it may be able to expand access to lawyers and domestic violence advocates for plaintiffs.
The judicial branch on Tuesday announced the creation of a task force made up of judges, domestic violence advocates and a criminal defense attorney. The task force is slated to submit a final report on system-wide recommendations by February 2022.
If you are experiencing domestic or sexual violence, there is help available 24-hours a day by calling 1-866-644-3574 to reach the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.