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Should Massachusetts family court conduct virtual hearings?

by | Aug 12, 2013 | Child Support |

A man in Georgia received a summons to appear in Massachusetts for a child support hearing. He didn’t have the money to travel to Massachusetts so the Court held a hearing without him. Since he didn’t appear, the Court entered an order greater than his take home pay. He couldn’t pay the order in full and, since the money is taken out of his paycheck, he lacks the ability to pay his bills. All he had to do was to show up in Massachusetts, show a pay stub, and fill out a financial statement. If he had done these things, the court would have entered a reasonable order for child support.

A man in Nevada received a summons on a contempt action claiming that he owes $1,500.00 for unpaid medical bills. The problem is that the medical bills were never sent to him. He never had the ability to pay the bills. Since he got sued, he now has the choice of traveling to Massachusetts to defend the action, hiring a lawyer, or paying the money even if he doesn’t owe it. The least expensive choice is to pay the money.

These stories are calls that I received from potential out of state clients who were sued in Massachusetts. In both cases, and in many others, litigation in Massachusetts Probate and Family Court about child support and other financial issues results in a miscarriage of justice. Even if the out of state defendant fights the action, they lose because the cost of travel and fighting is so high. Usually, the out of state defendant is facing the potential of multiple trips to fight the litigation. What is needed is the ability to have out of state Defendants present their cases without traveling to Massachusetts and still giving both sides a fair hearing. The internet allows the Court to change the rules to provide a low cost, fair hearing.

Under current law, Family Court hearings in Massachusetts require that all participants attend every court hearing. Failure to do so can result in expensive financial orders or loss of rights. This requirement is based on the concept that the Judge’s time is very valuable and that the parties must present their arguments to the Judge in person. The system was created before the invention of the internet which allows easy, low cost video teleconferencing, and before the invention of the telephone speaker phone. The Massachusetts court system is also based on a concept that the courts are distributed throughout the Commonwealth so that it is convenient for parties to attend court. What if it is not convenient? What if someone lives in another state or another country? Do they have to attend in person? Under the current system the answer is that they must attend in person.

It is permissible in some circumstances for litigants to not appear in person. This is only allowed if a lawyer or a party brings a motion in advance for a hearing to be held without a party attending in person. This motion may present that the lawyer will appear without the client or it may request that a party participate by video conference or by telephone conference. What if a person lives out of state and can’t afford to hire a lawyer and can’t afford to travel to Massachusetts? There is no procedure for a person to participate in this circumstance.

I suggest that the Courts change the rules to allow virtual hearings to accommodate out of state parties. With today’s technology, parties can fax documents to the court and appear virtually through the internet. We no longer need expensive equipment. Smart phones, tablet and laptop computers all have cameras that allow teleconferencing. Software to conduct video conferencing such as Skype and Facetime are free. With a minimal amount of effort, parties can appear long distance without spending a fortune to travel to Massachusetts. In fact, Probate Courts have held virtual hearings for years when a party is incarcerated in a Massachusetts prison.

What I think is necessary is a court rule that allows virtual appearances. It can be limited to specific types of hearings such as temporary orders. The rule should allow a party to mail or fax a request to attend the hearing by video. The rule can require that financial statements and related documents be faxed or mailed to the court with copies faxed or mailed to the other side in advance. The court can schedule a virtual hearing at a set time. This would require that parties can mail or fax the request and that the Clerk’s office would process the request. It would also require a change in the wording of the summons to notify parties of the right to seek a virtual hearing.

Until such time as the courts change the way they treat out of state parties, any out of state person who is sued in Massachusetts Probate and Family Court must consult an experienced Massachusettsfamily law attorney for help.

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