A new online tool makes it easier for domestic violence victims and survivors in Ohio to complete legal forms needed to petition for civil protection orders, Ohio Legal Help announced in a press release.

The new tool is available for free on Ohio Legal Help’s website and may be accessed by phone, tablet or computer. The tool guides users through legal forms online, allowing users to save progress and easily start and stop as needed, according to the release.

Ohio Legal Help, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Ohioans access the civil justice system, estimated in the release that the new tool will help 50,000 users within a year.

Civil protection orders may provide a range of protections for domestic violence victims and survivors. According to the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, one of the partners behind the new online tool, CPOs are court orders intended to stop abuse by such means as prohibiting contact, prohibiting the abuser from visiting the victim or family’s home, school or workplace and evicting the abuser from the victim’s home.

According to Ohio Legal Help’s website, CPOs differ from restraining orders, which are always part of a separate legal case, such as a divorce. CPOs may be filed independently of any other case, and, unlike restraining orders, violating a CPO is illegal and punishable by jail time.

Ohio Legal Help launched the online tool last week. The tool was developed in partnership with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Domestic Violence, the Ohio Domestic Violence Network and The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, according to the release.

“This project is part of our continued effort to improve access to courts and make court forms more accessible through the effective use of technology,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said in a statement.

Meigs County Common Pleas Judge Linda Warner, chair of the Advisory Committee on Domestic Violence, encouraged domestic violence survivors to seek professional help completing CPO petitions, but said the online tool will help regardless.

“Completing a civil protection order petition with the help of an attorney or advocate is always best,” Warner said in a statement. “But petitioners often come to court and file without either. And COVID made that even more stressful. This site allows victims to complete the forms with a guided interview, along with legal and advocacy service referral information, not to mention all of Ohio Legal Help’s other resources.”

The development of the online tool was prompted by concerns among partners about the isolating impacts of the pandemic and related increases in violence and abuse, the release said. The Ohio Domestic Violence Network reported in May that the number of hotline calls nearly tripled at some local domestic violence programs over the past year.

“The pandemic has isolated families and increased stress, which can escalate tensions in the home,” Ohio Legal Help Executive Director Susan Choe said in the release. “We created the My OLH user hub to make accessing needed information and filling out forms online easier and, thanks to our partners, we now have specific tools for those struggling with domestic abuse.”

According to the release, Ohio Legal Help’s website has assisted over 800,000 users during the pandemic in accessing court forms, free legal information and other resources. Ohio Legal Help provides information on a range of issues, such as unemployment benefits, returning to work and more.

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