COVID-19 Courts Update

Over the last week, life in Massachusetts – and almost everywhere else in the world – has changed dramatically. From school closures to marathon cancellations, the coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in ways that did not seem possible just a few weeks ago. The BBA is committed to being a source of information and support as we, too, navigate this new reality.

Since Governor Baker announced a state of emergency last Tuesday, state courts have announced a series of accommodations to ensure that everyone can practice safe social distancing and still have adequate access to the justice system. We have gathered those orders, and additional information, below.

Courts will be closed to the public March 18, 2020, until at least April 6, 2020. The only matters that will be heard in-person in Massachusetts state courthouses are emergency matters that cannot be held by videoconference or telephone. Each of the seven Trial Court departments have defined emergency matters for their departments in new standing orders that were issued on March 17.

  • Trial Court
    • Extension of the expiration of probation warrants
    • Modify or suspend compliance with certain conditions of probation or pretrial release in instances where the MA Probation Service is performing duties related to the conditions.
    • Permit indigent filers using eFileMA to have court fees and provider fees waived without the need to electronically file any affidavits required by statute.
    • Extend the expiration of civil commitment, treatment and observation orders pursuant to G.L. c. 123
  • District Court
    • Emergency matters are to be heard by videoconference or telephonic conference. Those include:
      • emergency abuse prevention orders and initial hearing after notice (G.L. c. 209A)
      • emergency harassment prevention orders and initial hearing after notice (G.L. c. 258E)
      • emergency extreme risk protection orders and initial hearing after notice (G.L. c. 140, §§ 131R-131Y)
      • arraignments of new arrests in which the arrestee is in custody
      • warrant removals for persons under arrest
      • probation violations where detention is sought for persons arrested on a warrant or for a new crime
      • search warrants
      • mental health commitment hearings or evaluations pursuant to G.L. c. 123
      • mental health orders pursuant to G.L. c. 123, § 18(a)
    • A person seeking to post bail for a defendant who is in custody is permitted to enter the courthouse for that purpose.
  • Boston Municipal Court
    • The Divisions of the Boston Municipal Court will be closed to the public except to conduct emergency hearings that cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing, either because such a hearing is impracticable or because it would be inconsistent with the protection of constitutional rights. Access to the courthouse for Mental Health Commitment pursuant to G.L. c. 123, § 35, the fitting of Global Positioning System or SCRAM Devices ordered by a judge, and the posting of bail is subject to compliance with the Standing Order of the Supreme Judicial Court OE-144 “Order Regarding Access to State Courthouses & Court Facilities” and shall be the only matters in which parties other than trial court employees shall be permitted in the courthouse.      
    • The emergency matters listed below shall only be conducted by a judge by videoconference or by telephonic conference call without the physical presence of the parties, counsel, or other members of the public so as to avoid person to person contact and possibility for transmission of the virus. Any Court rule, criminal or civil, that impedes a judge’s or court clerk’s ability to utilize available technologies to limit in-person contact is suspended for the duration of this Order.  
    • All Emergency Matters, as defined below, that arise between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. shall take place over videoconference or telephonic conference call, unless such a hearing is not practicable or because it would be inconsistent with the protection of constitutional rights. After 4:30 p.m., the judicial response system will be activated in the normal course.  
      •  i. “Emergency Matters” for the purposes of this Standing Order are defined as follows:

a. applications for Abuse Prevention Orders pursuant to G.L. c. 209A;
b. applications for a Harassment Prevention Orders pursuant to G.L. c. 258E;
c. petitions for Extreme Risk Protection Orders pursuant to G.L. c. 140, § 131R et. seq.;
d. mental health hearings pursuant to G.L. c. 123, except as outlined in section (I)(A) above;
e. hearings for Order of Pretrial Detention pursuant to G.L. c. 276, § 58A;
f. arraignments of new arrests in which the arrestee is in custody;
g. warrant removals for persons under arrest;
h. probation violations where detention is sought for persons arrested on a warrant or for a new crime; and
i. search warrants.

  • Housing Court
    • All Housing Court divisions shall remain open during regular business hours and, at least until April 6, 2020, shall hear only emergency matters.
    • Where appropriate, such matters shall be heard telephonically or through video conferencing. “Emergency matters” in the Housing Court include the following circumstances: applications for injunctive relief, temporary restraining orders where a complaint involves a lockout, condemnation, no heat, no water, and/or no utilities; conduct and or conditions endangering the health safety and welfare of residential occupants and others; stay of levy on an execution; or where access is required to address an emergency (e.g., burst water pipe, gas fumes, etc.).
    • Where appropriate, the Clerk-Magistrate of each division, in consultation with the respective First Justice, shall otherwise have the discretion to determine whether a matter is an “emergency” and merits immediate hearing.
    • Where possible, all attorneys and litigants shall provide the Clerk’s Office with their respective contact information, including an e-mail address and telephone number.
  • Juvenile Court
    • Those emergency matters to be heard by videoconference or telephonic conference are:
      • Care and Protection Matters
      • Delinquency/Youthful Offender Proceedings
      • Harassment Prevention Orders
      • G.L c. 123, § 35 Proceedings
    • Unless otherwise identified in this Standing Order, parties shall file new matters in non-emergency cases by mail, by e-mail, where available, or by dropping off the filing at a designated drop box at the appropriate court location, where available. The filings will be docketed but no event will be scheduled in the matter before May 4, 2020.
  • Land Court
    • Until further notice, all court events other than trials or other evidentiary hearings, which otherwise would take place in courtrooms at the Land Court shall be conducted by telephone conference call.
    • In advance of an event held by telephone conference, all counsel and parties with scheduled events who have filed notices of appearance will be contacted by the Sessions Clerk for the presiding Judge with instructions for how to participate in the conference by telephone. All counsel and parties should maintain a current notice of appearance on file in each case that includes a current phone number and e-mail address. (Sessions Clerk contact information for each Judge is listed at the link above.)
    • Any new non-evidentiary court events scheduled during the period in which these directives are in effect will be scheduled to be conducted by telephone conference in accordance with instructions included with the event notice.
    • Any party seeking in urgent circumstances involving an emergency matter approval to conduct an in-person court event must a file a motion with the presiding Judge setting forth good cause for such request. Exceptions, in whole or in part, to the requirement that a court event be held telephonically, may be ordered by the court upon a showing of extraordinary circumstances, and only provided that it appears that the conduct of the event with persons present in the courtroom will take place in a manner that will sufficiently reduce the health risks to all concerned.
    • Until further notice, all tax sessions of the Land Court (held every Thursday) will be conducted by telephone conference.
    • All counsel and parties with scheduled tax session events who have filed notices of appearance will be contacted by the Case Coordinator for the tax session with instructions for how to participate in the conference by telephone. All counsel and parties should maintain a current notice of appearance on file in each case that includes a current phone number and e-mail address. (The tax session Case Coordinator’s contact information is listed at the link above.)
    • Any tax session events scheduled during the period in which these directives are in effect will be scheduled to be conducted by telephone conference included with the event notice.
    • Until further notice, the submission of all Land Court filings shall be made by use of electronic means (including eFiling in Servicemembers cases, or by e-mail where authorized by the presiding Judge or Recorder) or by mail (including USPS, UPS, FedEx or other delivery services), rather than by in-person delivery. Whenever filings are made by mail, counsel and parties are encouraged to send an e-mail courtesy copy of the filing to the Sessions Clerk for the presiding Judge.
  • Probate and Family Court
    • Whenever practical and possible, the Court shall conduct hearings by telephone or videoconference rather than having people appear in person or rescheduling event dates.
    • All restraining order requests and requests for orders to vacate and their initial return dates, including return dates when notice has not been accomplished, shall be heard by telephone or videoconference. 
    • Trials that have yet begun will be continued beyond May 1, 2020, unless the trial may be conducted otherwise than in-person by agreement of the parties. Where a trial has commenced, the determination whether the trial shall proceed, and how, is left to the sound discretion of the trial judge, in consultation with the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court. If a pending trial is to proceed, it shall be deemed an emergency matter and attendance at such trials shall be limited to the necessary persons identified above, plus no more than ten members of the general public or “news media,” who shall be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis and who shall sit no closer than six feet to each other or any other person.  
    • Emergency situations not addressed here will be considered on a case-by-case basis. If a person arrives at the courthouse with a matter they deem an emergency, that matter shall be brought to a Judicial Case Manager, an Assistant Judicial Case Manager, Assistant Register, Magistrate, or other designated staff member to determine whether the matter is an emergency or whether the person can be helped in another way.
    • The below actions/case types have been identified as emergency matters and may be filed and shall be heard, unless the Court requires notice:
  1. Petitions/motions seeking a Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate/Comfort Measures Only (DNR/DNI/CMO) order, authorization for medical treatment order, or order for antipsychotic medication;
  2. Petitions seeking appointment of a temporary guardian or conservator;
  3. Petitions pursuant to G. L. c. 19A, § 7 and G. L. c. 19C, § 20 – protective services;
  4. Health Care Proxy actions;
  5. Petitions/Motions for Appointment of Special Personal Representative;
  6. Petitions for marriage without delay;    
  7. Complaints for Dependency (SIJS) if the child will turn 21 prior to May 1, 2020; 
  8. All requests for injunctive relief;
  9. Motions for temporary orders where exceptional/exigent circumstances have been demonstrated; and
  10. Contempt actions where exceptional/exigent circumstances have been demonstrated. 
  • Superior Court
    • In light of emerging developments concerning the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and as directed by the Supreme Judicial Court in its order dated March 17, 2020 (SJC Order–2), supplementing its order dated March 13, 2020 (SJC Order–1), the Superior Court will remain open for in-person proceedings solely to address emergency matters that cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing, either because such a hearing is not practicable or because it would be inconsistent with the protection of constitutional rights. The following protocol governs those matters, as well as other time-sensitive matters, for which a videoconference or telephonic hearing shall be held, unless otherwise provided in this standing order or unless otherwise ordered by a judge after consultation with the Clerk, the parties, Security, and Probation if applicable. In addition, this protocol addresses trials and other logistical matters.
    • The Superior Court shall remain open solely to address the following emergency proceedings:
  1. proceedings under G. L. c. 112, § 12S (“Mary Moe” petitions)
  2. any other matter which a judge, after consultation with the Clerk, the parties, Security, and Probation if applicable, determines requires an in-person proceeding because it cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing, either because such a hearing is not practicable or because it would be inconsistent with the protection of constitutional rights
  3. the Administrative Office of the Superior Court will remain open for accepting returns of wiretap warrants.
    • The following time-sensitive Superior Court matters presumptively shall be held by videoconference or telephonically, subject to additional provisions made here, or unless a judge, after consultation with the Clerk, the parties, Security, and Probation (if necessary), finds that the matter cannot be resolved through a videoconference or telephonic hearing, either because such a hearing is not practicable or because it would be inconsistent with the protection of constitutional rights. 

1. Bail reviews
2. Bail determination following arrest or surrender pursuant to a warrant 
3. Wiretap warrants
4. Dangerousness hearings under G. L. c. 276, § 58A
i. Any order of detention under § 58A after a hearing by videoconference or telephone shall be without prejudice to the defendant’s right to an in-person hearing to be held when the current health emergency is over
5. Probable cause hearings for sexual dangerousness under G. L. c. 123A, § 12
i. Any finding of probable cause made after a hearing by videoconference or telephone shall be without prejudice to the respondent’s right to an in-person hearing to be held when the current health emergency is over 
6. Hearings on returns in matters under G. L. c. 209A or G. L. 258E
i. Following any ex parte order, the ten-day hearing shall be conducted by telephone, subject to further hearing in person when the current health emergency is over
7. Actions concerning compelled isolation or quarantine
8. Requests for temporary restraining orders

We will continue to keep our membership and the broader community informed on the accommodations that the court system makes as this public health emergency evolves. We hope you are staying healthy, safe, and connected during these troubling times.

-Lucia Caballero
Government Relations Assistant
Boston Bar Association