Crisis in the Courts: COVID-19 Causes Significant Disruptions to Court Proceedings

people in face-masks

As COVID-19 continues to spread with no end in sight, the Massachusetts court system has taken unprecedented steps to protect its employees, practitioners, and the public from the virus. While there are still many unknowns about the virus, one thing we do know is that it is easily spread. Everyday thousands of people enter various courts across the Commonwealth and with the CDC calling for social distancing, the courts are the last place any person wants to be because courtrooms are filled with people and not enough space to stay six feet apart. It is welcome news that the courts are doing their part to prevent the spread of the virus but the new restrictions have also left a lot of confusion and upheaval with how to deal with pending cases and emergency matters.

The Supreme Judicial Court has issued standing orders which restrict in-person proceedings at all Massachusetts courthouses. Only emergency matters that cannot be handled through the use of videoconference or telephone conference can be heard in person at the court. Further, clerk’s offices throughout the state are only open in order to accept pleadings and related documents connected to emergency matters. The big question then becomes what is an “emergency.” What one person believes is an emergency is not necessarily the same definition that the court believes is an emergency. As a result. each Trial Court- Housing Court, Superior Court, District Court, Boston Municipal Court, and Juvenile Court has released their own orders defining emergency matters. While the orders are similar, they are not identical. It is important to contact your attorney, if you have one, and the clerk’s office, if you don’t, if you have any questions about your upcoming court date or if you think you have an emergency matter that needs to be heard by the court.

With the exception of civil bench trials that can be conducted without the need to appear in-person at the courthouse, all criminal and civil jury trials scheduled to start before April 17, 2020 have been continued. While a criminal defendant can request his trial still proceed, he would need approval from multiple people. The reality though is that barring extraordinary circumstances it is highly unlikely permission would be granted. The risk to the judge, clerk, court officers, jurors, police officers, witnesses, and attorneys is almost insurmountable when weighed against the defendant’s request to proceed to trial as scheduled.

Nearly all criminal cases in district court are being continued. If a person is not in custody, and the case is scheduled for a court date between now and May 1, 2020, the case will be continued to another date. There has also been an ongoing effort by defense attorneys to advocate for their clients who are in custody to try and get them out. In certain cases, attorneys can ask that the court lower the person’s bail and./or release him from probation detention.

Continuances of thousands and thousands of civil and criminal matters won’t happen overnight. The clerk’s offices in various courts are operating with a skeleton crew right now and are doing their best to not only answer all the questions from attorneys and the public but they are also working as fast as they can to continue cases to a requested date. Patience and appreciation will go a long way as everyone navigates this unprecedented time. The best thing you can do right now is stay informed about your case by contacting your attorney if you have one.

The SJC also extended all orders, such as Restraining Order and Harassment Prevention Orders) that issued prior to March 17, 2020 but that are supposed to expire before April 21, 2020 as long as there had previously been an adversarial hearing (which means a hearing where both parties had an opportunity to be heard) until the cases can be rescheduled for a hearing.

Call us today at Sweeney & Associates if you have been charged with a crime or believe that you could be charged with a crime in the future. Even though many cases are on hold, the police are still investigations crimes, people are still being arrested, and protecting your rights is still our primary concern. We can be reached at (617) 328-6900 or for a free consultation.