Adapt. It seems like this is the byword of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals have had to adapt their lifestyles. Businesses have had to adapt to socially distant customer relations. Government systems have had to adapt how they conduct everyday public services and legal proceedings. The latter has had a significant impact on domestic violence victims seeking legal injunctions to protect themselves from their abusers. As the court system begins to open up in Massachusetts, rules and procedures have changed. What does this look like for DV survivors?
COVID Court Changes
Courthouses across Massachusetts are opening up for some in-person proceedings. Most court business is still being done via phone or videoconferencing to limit the number of people in the building. Petitions for Abuse Prevention Orders and Harassment Prevention Orders (i.e. restraining orders) are civil proceedings. Some courts will handle these remotely and others in person. If you petition for a prevention order, the court will determine the hearing date and inform you how it will be held.
Petitioners should contact their local District Court by telephone to find out their court’s specific procedures. Check out Mass.gov’s Courthouse Locator or call the Trial Court Help Line at (833) 912-6878 to determine the appropriate jurisdiction for you. You can still obtain restraining orders when courts are closed (evenings, weekends, and holidays). Contact the local police, who can initiate emergency orders through an on-call judge. DVSN Advocates are available to assist you and support you by phone throughout this process.
For cases held in-person, there are new guidelines everyone must follow. Anyone entering a courthouse must wear a mask and practice 6-ft social distancing. Before entry, your temperature will be taken and some brief health questions asked. If the courthouse or a conference room has reached capacity, you may be asked to wait in the lobby or outside until there is space to social distance. Find out more specific details here.
If your hearing is held virtually, Mass.gov has developed a handy FAQ sheet. It includes information on how to prepare, technical tips, and what to do if one has difficulty joining the virtual hearing. Click here for this downloadable PDF file.
DVSN Court Support Advocates Can Help
For court proceedings held at the courthouse, you are allowed to bring support people with you. This could be friends, family members, or advocates – anyone you would like to be there. DVSN does have Court Support Advocates willing to accompany clients who desire this aid. We have an established relationship with Concord District Court and our Advocates may be available to travel to other court houses in the area as needed. We will do our best to provide an Advocate or put you in touch with another organization that can. Call our Help Line to speak with an Advocate and request court support: 888-399-6111, toll-free and confidential.
Two “Restraining” Orders – What’s the Difference?
There are two types of prevention orders victims of domestic violence can use to create a legal barrier between themselves and their abuser. You do not need to have a lawyer to apply for either order.
209A Abuse Prevention Order
When most people refer to a “restraining order”, they mean a 209A Abuse Prevention Order. It is commonly known as a restraining order or “R.O”. This order is only applicable when abuse is happening between people who are or were in an intimate relationship, have children in common, are related by blood or marriage, or live in the same household.
258E Harassment Prevention Order
258E Harassment Prevention Orders do not have the same relationship requirements that 209A Abuse Prevention Orders do. While a domestic connection between the abuser and the abused is not requisite, Harassment Prevention Orders do have other specific criteria for eligibility. Harassment must include three or more willful and malicious acts against you OR one more serious crime of sexual assault, criminal stalking, or criminal harassment.
In granting prevention orders, a judge may order the defendant to not abuse, contact, or come near the plaintiff/victim or their children. They may also require the defendant to move out of the shared home and surrender their firearms. Further requirements can be added as well.
Both types of prevention orders are civil orders but violating certain parts of the orders is a criminal offense. These include no abuse, no contact, leave the home, stay away from home/work/school, and surrender firearms (for 209A only). If a violation occurs, the petitioner (plaintiff/victim) should contact the local police to report the violation. A violation is punishable by up to 2.5 years in the house of correction.
Online Forms & Filing
Filing for 209A or 258E orders can now be done using online forms. The PDF forms are available here to download and fill in. Call your local court to find out how they would like you to submit the forms once completed. Your local police and DVSN Advocates can assist you through this process.
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