The New “Normal”? Well, at Least Until June 1st…

Another week of social distancing, an extended stay-at-home advisory, and a new update on the status of operations of the Probate and Family Court due to COVID-19. While continued social distancing measures were certainly expected to continue in Massachusetts in some form past May 4, 2020, it was not easy to digest that this new “normal” would remain in place for at least the next month (particularly for this working mother of two young children who no longer has the assistance of outside childcare after Governor Baker announced last week that daycares would be closed until at least June 29, 2020).

On April 27, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court issued an updated Order guiding Court Operations under COVID-19, which becomes effective May 4, 2020. The new Order extends the closure of the Probate and Family Courts from May 4, 2020, until at least June 1, 2020, except in the case of an emergency. A copy of the new order can be found here.

What does this new “normal” look like for divorce or custody matters presently pending or to be filed in the Probate and Family Court?  Here are a few of the most relevant take-aways:

  1. Until at least June 1, 2020, the Probate and Family Courts will continue to be closed to the general public except to address emergencies that cannot otherwise be resolved “virtually.” This means that motions for temporary orders (establishing or modifying support, modifying parenting schedules, etc.) will likely not be scheduled for hearing until sometime after June 1, 2020, unless the Court (as determined by each county taking into consideration skeletal court staffing, technological constraints, and the need to prioritize matters) deems the matter an “emergency.”  Each county has different procedures for how emergency matters will be determined and handled. For many parents encountering difficulties with their ex-partner on parenting time schedules, or others who have recently lost their jobs but still have hefty support obligations, the delay in getting a motion heard by the Court may be incredibly challenging.
  2. The Probate and Family Courts continue to be open for general business, including new filings (complaints for divorce, complaints for contempt, complaints for modification, etc.). While new matters can be filed, it is uncertain at this juncture how quickly hearings on these new matters will be scheduled. Assuming that matters will be scheduled for hearing on the basis of the order in which they are filed, it is strongly recommended that new matters be filed now, rather than waiting until the courthouses reopen to the public after June 1, 2020, as there will likely be a large backlog of cases that need to be heard.
  3. All trials scheduled to commence between March 13, 2020, and June 1, 2020, are continued to a date no earlier than June 1, 2020, unless they may be conducted virtually by agreement of the parties and of the court. It is unclear what divorce or custody matter would ever benefit from a virtual trial, but I suspect that most, if not all, trials scheduled during this time period will need to be continued past June 1, 2020.  If a trial or evidentiary hearing is postponed as a result of the COVID-19, a party may request a telephone conference with the Court to discuss the postponement and issues related thereto.
  4. Deadlines set forth in statutes, court rules, standing orders or guidelines are tolled through June 1, 2020. This includes discovery deadlines and discovery requests issued under the Rules of Domestic Relations Procedure. The Order sets forth details of how the tolling will work:  for deadlines that expired or will expire between March 16, 2020, and June 1, 2020, the number of days remaining after March 16, 2020, until the original deadline, are added after June 1, 2020, until the new deadline. If the discovery request was served after March 16th, the responding party will have until July 1st to respond.

While the Courts are doing what they can to keep cases moving, they are also doing their part to keep their staff and the public safe.  It is inevitable that with the extended closure there will be long delays once the Courts reopen after June 1, 2020.  Our team of dedicated attorneys are here to answer any questions you may have about how the new Order may impact your family law matter and work with you to resolve pressing matters that arise during this uncertain and unprecedented time – even when the courthouses generally remain closed to the public.