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Coronavirus and MA Courts: The Latest on What’s HappeningPosted April 29, 2020
By Jonathan A. Karon
This past Monday, April 27th, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court updated its prior order concerning court operations during the coronavirus shut down. https://www.mass.gov/news/supreme-judicial-court-issues-updated-order-regarding-state-court-operations-during-the
For the most part, the SJC extended the provisions of its prior order. Essentially, Massachusetts courts will only be dealing with emergency matters until June 1, 2020. All jury trials are continued until at least July 1, 2020. Bench trials (cases tried to the judge without a jury) are continued until at least June 1, 2020, unless the parties agree to conduct them virtually.
It is important to add that although courts are generally only hearing emergency matters, they are still accepting pleadings for filing. Be aware that due to COVID-19 some Superior Courthouses are closed in counties with more than one location. For example, only the Woburn Superior Courthouse is presently open in Middlesex County. Pleadings for cases assigned to the Superior Court in Lowell have to be filed in Woburn. So, if you need to file something in Superior Court, you should probably try to call the Clerk’s office first to confirm where it should be filed. Also, only some Massachusetts courts accept e-filing, for the rest, you’ll need to use the mail (to the best of my knowledge no Massachusetts courts are accepting in person filings, except in cases of emergency. If you think you have an emergency you should try to contact the Clerk’s office).
The SJC order also tolled (extended) statutes of limitation through May 31, 2020. Although this may preserve a claim, I advise you not to rely on this. If you think you may have a case and the statute of limitations is about to expire, you should contact an attorney immediately. They will be able to give you much better advice, based on your specific facts. The safest course is always to file a Complaint if there is any chance of the statute of limitations expiring and preventing you from bringing your claims.
So what does all this mean? To some extent, no one knows. The answer depends in part on how quickly and to what extent Massachusetts re-opens from coronavirus restrictions. (Yesterday Governor Baker extended his business shut down until May 18th). I anticipate that Massachusetts courts will start conducting hearings remotely on non-emergency matters as they overcome some technical and administrative challenges.
The biggest unknown is when and how jury trials will resume. Absent a vaccine or herd immunity, neither of which seem imminent, it’s hard to foresee prospective jurors being comfortable sitting in close quarters with eleven other strangers for multiple days. Some have suggested virtual trials by video conference but that raises concerns both in making sure all potential jurors have access to the technology and as to whether jurors participating remotely will be able to accurately assess witness credibility. Perhaps measures to increase social distance, such as modifying the number of jurors or changing the layout of the jury box, will be adopted. Jurors, who are already making a sacrifice by serving, are entitled to be both safe and comfortable during their service.
There are also uncertainties over scheduling once jury trials do resume. Will trials that were continued due to the coronavirus bump presently scheduled trials? Will the courts deal with the backlog of criminal trials before civil trials resume? As of now, there are no answers to these questions.
I will do my best to update the Karon Law Blog as more answers become available.
As a reminder, I am still practicing law remotely. The best way to reach me is by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, as I check my e-mail multiple times a day. You can also leave a voice message on my office number (617) 367-0570.
Finally, here’s the link to the Massachusetts government web page compiling the orders issued by the different MA courts concerning operations in light of the coronavirus. https://www.mass.gov/guides/court-system-response-to-covid-19
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