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Are Family Courts Open in MA?


You’re feeling like you need change in your family life but are unsure of what you can and can’t do through the family courts during these strange times. We’re in May, 2020 and MA is still in a state of lockdown. However, family law problems don’t stop. If anything, they unfortunately seem to be escalating.

While the family courts were initially holding only emergency hearings when the lockdown began, they are now planning to process all cases and hearings again.

However, with uncertainty about when it will be safe again to have people gather in large crowds, the courts are forced to plan for an alternative case management system.

So what’s the plan?

First, different counties are implementing different policies for the time-being. Therefore, a divorce in Plymouth County won’t necessarily be handled exactly the same way as one in Norfolk

There are already policies in place at some courthouses to address certain issues. For example, most courts are administratively processing certain agreements by the parties: if the parties are in agreement to change a court order, they can simply sign a document, which is then filed with the court with a request for administrative processing. The main benefit of course, is that no one has to appear and the order is entered.

For other issues, the parties have to be available by telephone. For example, most courts are processing final divorce agreements by phone. The agreement and financial statements are sent to the court in advance, and on the hearing date, the court calls the parties and attorneys and does a teleconference to process the divorce.

Also, some courts are also allowing for contested filings “on the papers.” If the attorneys and parties are in agreement on utilizing this process, the attorneys draft their specific requests and arguments and email the documents to the court. The judge then reads them and issues an order, which is then mailed or emailed to the attorneys and parties.

Finally, some courts are already proceeding with contested hearings by phone. All attorneys and parties are put on notice of the date and time of the event. And on that date, the court calls the parties and attorneys and the hearing proceeds by phone, with each side having time for arguments and answering the judge’s questions.

However, in addition to the above processes that have been rolled out, there seems to be a consensus that all courts will be coming up with a plan to hold all different types of hearings and events.

What will that look like?

While it’s still unclear exactly what the plan will be. There may be a combination of more telephonic/video hearings and staggered hearing times at the courthouse.

First, we will likely see more telephonic and video hearings. Electronic hearings can be challenging because the attorney and client are not physically in the same space and therefore communication won’t be optimal. However, attorneys should work with clients to plan for the hearings to maximize the chances of a good outcome. For example, perhaps the the attorney and client can communicate by email or a text if they need to exchange info during the hearing.

Another issue with telephonic hearings specifically is that most of our communication as humans comes from body language, not words. Therefore, it may be more difficult for judges and attorneys to make credibility determinations during phone hearings. This issue may be mitigated if the court uses more videoconferencing instead of phones.

As for physically going to the courthouse, the scheduled times for in-person hearings may be staggered for awhile. Although some courts were already doing this, it now becomes a viable option for minimizing crowd size in the courthouse at any given time. For example, on hearing dates, only a certain number of hearings may be scheduled for 8:30 a.m., the next group of hearings at 9:30 a.m., and so on.

While courthouse restrictions remain in place, attorneys and parties will likely more strongly consider utilizing alternative dispute resolution to resolve issues—for example mediation or conciliation. There are plenty of quality mediators available, and the shift in societal function and emphasis on safety will likely result in more of them utilizing technology to conduct virtual mediation meetings.

The unfortunate circumstances of today are forcing courts and practitioners to adjust their operations. But we humans are resilient creatures and we will all find a way to make it work. There may be more electronic hearings, and perhaps the staggering of hearing times in court for some time. But cases will be moving along. So you can make progress toward resolving your family law issues.

If you have any questions about how divorce cases are being handled in MA or any other questions, feel free to contact us.

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