How Courts Handle Restraining Orders During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The very short answer is that you need to call the specific court that has jurisdiction over your case. Different courts are handling things differently, and the only way to know the right thing to do is to contact the court directly.
Pursuant to the Supreme Judicial Court’s (SJC) March 17, 2020, Standing Order, courts are officially closed until April 6, 2020, except for emergency hearings. Restraining orders and harassment prevention orders constitute emergencies and, as such, the SJC has issued additional guidelines. Those guidelines may be confusing and it is important to talk to a lawyer if you have any questions. This blog focuses on the most recent announcements from the courts and will be updated as circumstances permit.
Theoretically, restraining orders and harassment prevention orders are supposed to be one of the most accessible legal proceedings for people without lawyers. However, because of the current circumstances, if you have the ability to hire an attorney to assist you, we recommend that you do so. A lawyer will be able to navigate the system much more easily, and the courts will generally be more responsive to requests and inquiries from attorneys.
If you do not have a restraining order, but need to get one:
A. During business hours. The best advice, right now, is to call your local District Court, Boston Municipal Court, or Probate Court and ask, specifically, what you should do to obtain a restraining order. You may be able to fill out the paperwork at home and call the court to get a specific time for a telephonic or videoconference hearing. The Standing Order provides that if you go in-person to the courthouse, a clerk will give you the forms and then have you fill them out in a separate area. The court will also provide you a time to call in for a hearing, which will be done telephonically or through video conferencing. You may be able to have the telephone hearing from the same place where you filled out the forms. If you have an unusual case, you may be able to see a judge in-person.
B. After business hours. You should call the police or go directly to your local police station. They will help you fill out the necessary forms. They will also help you call the Judicial Response System where a judge on call will hear your request for a restraining order. At that time you will get a “return date” where the judge will hear your case with both you and the other side participating by telephone or through videoconferencing. Pursuant to the Standing Order, the return date will be up to ten days after the date of the initial hearing. You should assume that you need to appear in court at 9:00 AM for the return date unless the court tells you otherwise.
If you have an existing restraining order with an upcoming date before April 6, 2020:
A. You or your lawyer should call the court to find out what they plan to do about your case. According to the Standing Order, the courts should automatically continue the restraining order for sixty days until the court can schedule a hearing. However, some courts are scheduling upcoming restraining order hearings to be heard telephonically or through videoconferencing on the dates that the case was originally scheduled. It is very important that you check with the court.
B. You should assume your restraining order hearing will start at 9:00 A.M. unless the court tells you otherwise.
C. Lawyers may also make agreements to continue restraining orders to a specific date to avoid any of the COVID-19 confusion.
D. Inform the court if you have witnesses other than yourself that you plan on calling to testify.
E. If the restraining order is extended after the telephonic or video conferencing hearing, a defendant (person against whom the order issued) has the right to seek a new in-person hearing on the same issue once the courts have resumed normal operations. The restraining order will be in effect until the new date.
What about people who can’t access the courts in those ways?
If you don’t have access to a reliable phone line or can’t participate in teleconferencing for some other reason, you can still go to the District Court, Boston Municipal Court, or Probate Court in person and request to see a judge. The court will decide whether that is necessary and how to proceed from there.
Please reach out to the attorneys at Piltser Cowan Law if you have any questions about your restraining order or harassment prevention order. We are here to help.