Understanding Your Court Order: Stay Away Orders and Protection from Abuse

At Philadelphia Legal Assistance, I represent victims of crime in family law matters, including Protection From Abuse (“PFA”). Some of my clients are also actively involved in criminal matters that stem from the same domestic violence. In those cases, my client is considered the prosecutor’s “victim-witness” or the “complainant,” and the opposing party is the “defendant.” I hope that this blog will help to explore some of the differences between Stay Away Orders issued in criminal court and Protection From Abuse Orders issued in civil court. 

Depending on the specific criminal offenses charged against the defendant or abuser, the criminal court judge may award the victim-witness protection in the form of a Stay Away Order (“SAO”). An SAO prohibits the defendant from having any contact with or going near the victim-witness. Likewise, a Protection From Abuse Order can prohibit the abuser from abusing, contacting, and/or going near the victim. It is not uncommon for a victim-witnesses to have both an SAO and a PFA in effect at the same time. 

Although they have similar objectives and apply to the same people, there are several key differences between these two types of court orders. If you’ve been a victim of a crime and you’re considering filing a petition for Protection from Abuse, it is important that you understand the differences, which I’ve listed below. 

  1. The type of court that issues that order. 

  • An SAO is issued by a criminal court judge in connection with a criminal court case where the government - also known as “The Commonwealth” - is prosecuting charges against the defendant. The criminal case caption looks like: Commonwealth v. Defendant Name. As stated above, even though victims are technically not parties in criminal cases, they play an essential role as witnesses and complainants.  

  • A PFA is issued by a family court judge in connection with a civil matter where the victim individually brings an action against the defendant. The government is not a party to the case. A PFA case caption looks like: Victim Name vs. Abuser Name.  

  • If a defendant violates either an SAO or a PFA, they can face criminal consequences, including revocation of bail, probation or incarceration, and/or additional criminal charges. 


  1. How the orders get issued and how long they can last. 

  • Typically, an SAO is issued automatically at the very beginning of the criminal case, known as “arraignment,” and can last for the duration of the prosecution and, if the defendant is convicted, for the duration of their sentence. SAO’s are usually a verbal order, meaning the victim will not get a paper copy, but victims can request a copy of the order at the preliminary hearing. 

  • For a PFA, the victim must file a Petition for Protection from Abuse. The Petition must identify the relationship between the victim and the abuser and describe recent and prior incidents of abuse. The victim must appear at an ex parte hearing with the Court to receive a Temporary PFA Order. Then, the victim has roughly ten days to serve the defendant with the Petition and the Temporary Order so that both parties can appear in court for a hearing on the Final PFA. In Pennsylvania, a Final PFA can last for up to three years. 


  1. The purposes of each type of order which are tailored to the specific facts of each case. 

  • An SAO may apply to people who were complete strangers prior to the crime. It may also apply to people who knew each other prior to the crime. It is issued to protect the victim from further harm as well as to prevent witness intimidation. Where appropriate, the prosecutor may seek additional relief on behalf of the victim, such as “restitution.” 

  • PFA’s are exclusively awarded in cases where the parties have a certain pre-existing relationship. There is a variety of relief available to a victim under the PFA Act. Not only can a PFA prohibit the abuser from abusing, contacting, and/or going near the victim, it can also evict the abuser from a shared home, order the abuser to pay for costs incurred related to the abuse, and even address custody of shared children. 


If you have a question about your SAO or PFA, please call our hotline: 215-981-3838 on Monday-Thursday from 9:30AM-12:00PM, and be sure to check out our page on PFA in Philadelphia to learn more.