Courts Will Continue to Conduct most Business Virtually until at least September.
By: Wynn Gerhard, JD
The Massachusetts Courts continue to monitor the evolving risks from COVID-19, and have recently updated new Standing Orders and updates on Court procedures. Outlined below is the status of these Orders as of June 24, 2020, for the Supreme Judicial Court and for the Probate and Family Court, which handles guardianship and conservatorship cases. Please see the list of helpful links at the end for more information.
Supreme Judicial Court (SJC)
On June 24, 2020, the SJC issued the Third Updated Order regarding Court Operations under COVID 19, effective July 1, 2020. Key provisions include:
- Phased re-opening of Courts: Until at least July 13, Courts are physically closed to the general public but conducting emergency and non-emergency business virtually (i.e., by telephone, videoconference, email, electronic filing), with in-person proceedings only for limited emergency matters.
- Phase 2 – July 13, Courts and Clerk’s offices will physically re-open for limited in-person matters. Beginning on July 13, 2020, entry into a courthouse will be limited to personnel who work in the courthouse and persons who are present for one or more of the following purposes: attending in-person court proceedings; conducting in- person business with a clerk’s, register’s, or recorder’s; meeting with a probation officer or probation staff person; or conducting business at other offices that are open to the public and housed in the courthouse. All court users and personnel shall be subject to appropriate screening before they are allowed to enter a courthouse for purposes of preventing the spread of COVID-19
Also Beginning July 13: cell phones and other personal electronic devices will not be banned from any courthouse, but must be in compliance with rules posted within the Court.
- Phase 3 – August 10: In-person proceedings will be expanded: Each Trial court department will identify the additional matters it will address in each of the two initial phases.
- Clerks’, Registers’ and Recorders’ Offices: Until July 13, Clerks’, Registers’ and Recorder’s offices will continue to conduct business virtually, except when filing in an emergency matter cannot be accomplished virtually. Beginning July 13, all of these offices will physically reopen to the public, while still endeavoring to conduct business virtually as much as possible. Drop boxes may be provided at courthouses for the hand delivery of pleading or other document for filing. Each Trial Court department will provide guidance on the COVID-19 webpage on how to file pleading and other documents without coming to the courthouse.
- Tolling of deadlines in statutes, court rules and orders: All such deadlines that expired at any time from March 17, 2020 through June 30, 2020, were suspended until July 1, 2020 and no further suspension is anticipated. The new deadline in each instance is calculated as follows: determine how many days remained as of March 17, 2020, until the original deadline, and that same number of days will remain as of July 1, 2020, until the new deadline.
Example: If a rule set a thirty (30) day deadline and fourteen (14) days remained as of March 17 before that deadline would have been reached, then fourteen (14) days will continue to remain as of July 1, before the new deadline is reached (i.e., July 15)
Note: This applies to deadlines for
Guardian Care Plans, Annual Reports, Conservator Accountings and Reports,
Orders for Temporary Guardian or Conservator, Treatment plans (such as Rogers)
are due on a new date, as calculated above.
Probate and Family Court
Pursuant to the Supreme Judicial Court Order of June 24, the Probate court issued Standing Order 2-20, as amended July 1, 2020 regarding matters handled and Court process during the re-opening stages:
Phase 1: Up to July 13
Phase 2: July 13 – August 9
Phase 3: August 10 – TBD
Access to the Courts during these phases is governed by the Supreme Judicial Court Order outlined in the SJC section above.
The Judges are continuing to attempt to hear all case types, excluding trials and evidentiary hearings virtually, where it is possible to do so. The volume and types of cases to be heard will be determined by the Register and First Justice, and may vary depending on the capacity of each specific Court.
Delayed hearings: The July 1, 2020 Standing Order 2-20 postpones trials and evidentiary hearings of new or existing matters until at least July 13, 2020, unless deemed an “emergency”.
The following case types have been identified as emergency matters and may be filed and shall be heard:
- Restraining or protective orders (or requests to vacate) under G.L. c. 209A or G.L. c. 208, §34.
- 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;
- Petitions seeking appointment of a temporary guardian or conservator;
- Petitions pursuant to G. L. c. 19A, § 7 and G. L. c. 19C, § 20 – protective services;
- Health Care Proxy actions;
- Petitions/Motions for Appointment of Special Personal Representative;
- Petitions for marriage without delay;
- Complaints for Dependency (SIJS) and any related motions;
- All requests for injunctive relief;
- Motions for temporary orders where exceptional/exigent circumstances have been demonstrated; and
- Contempt actions where exceptional/exigent circumstances have been demonstrated.
For the up-to-the minute information regarding Court operations, please visit the following links:
Probate and Family Court Standing Order 2-20, amended July 1, 2020: https://www.mass.gov/probate-and-family- court-rules/probate-and-family-court-standing-order-2-20-as-amended-july-1-2020
Court announcements: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/daily-court-updates
Supreme Judicial Court orders: https://www.mass.gov/guides/court-system-response-to-covid-19#-supreme-judicial- court-orders-
Helpful information on types of cases, emergency and non-emergency cases, filing methods (e-file, email) and a list of all Probate Court Registers to call for help can be found at: https://www.mass.gov/guides/probate-and-family-court-faqs-related-to-covid-19
Wynn A. Gerhard is a Senior Attorney in the Elder, Health and Disability Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), in Boston, Massachusetts, where she has worked since 1987. In addition to her legal work for elders through GBLS, Wynn has been committed to guardianship reform in Massachusetts for more than two decades, including service on committees and Boards of many kinds that represent or work on behalf of elderly and disabled persons. Wynn was clinical supervisor for the Northeastern University Law School Legal Skills in Social Context Project on Public Guardianship in 2014-15, and presently is a member of the Massachusetts Guardianship Policy Institute. She also chairs the Coalition of Organizations to Improve Elder Care, working to improve the quality of long-term care services in Massachusetts. Prior to GBLS, Wynn worked for Legal Services for Cape Cod and Islands and Neighborhood Legal Services in Buffalo NY. She graduated from Harvard University and received her JD from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.