Monday, April 27, 2020

COVID-19 update from Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Courts

Supreme Judicial Court
The Supreme Judicial Court today issued an updated order, which will be effective May 4, 2020, regarding the operation of Massachusetts state courts and courthouses during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the new order, until at least June 1, 2020, all courts of the commonwealth will continue to be open to conduct court business, but courthouses will continue to be closed to the general public, except where entry is required to address emergency matters that cannot be addressed virtually (by telephone, videoconference, email, or comparable means, or through the electronic filing system).

Jury trials in both criminal and civil cases, in state courts are postponed to a date no earlier than July 1, 2020. All bench trials, in both criminal and civil cases are postponed to a date no earlier than June 1, unless they may be conducted virtually by agreement of the parties and of the court. The new order also extends various deadlines. 

Today’s SJC order also directs Trial Court departments to identify categories of non-emergency matters that they will attempt to address virtually, where it is practicable to do so, and to provide clear guidance to the public and members of the bar regarding what those categories will be by posting periodic notices to the judiciary’s COVID-19 webpage. The SJC and Appeals Court will continue to conduct oral arguments virtually in non-emergency matters.

All court clerks', registers', and recorders' offices shall continue to conduct court business -- to accept the filing of pleadings and other documents in emergency and identified non-emergency matters, to schedule and facilitate hearings, to issue orders, to answer questions from attorneys, litigants and the general public, and to conduct other necessary business of the respective court. All such business will be conducted virtually, except when the filing of pleadings and other documents in emergency matters cannot be accomplished virtually
Thursday, April 23, 2020

Zoom Zoom Zoom

         Who would have thought that the word “Zoom” would take on such different meaning.  Some of you may remember the children’s show that started with the song, “We’re gonna Zoom, We’re gonna Zoom, we’re gonna Zooma zooma zooma zoom”  That still goes through my head every time I hear the word “zoom.”  I love to photograph so I also think of my zoom lens or the zoom in and out button when viewing PDFs. Today though Zoom has become ubiquitous with video-conferencing. While I have in the past resisted conducting mediations via teleconference, today, in the age of COVID-19, it is all I am doing and I have come to appreciate its benefits.  I miss the human contact and there is still nothing like meeting in person but I am finding that Zoom mediations have their benefits and I suspect that like a lot of people I will continue to offer it as an option when this pandemic is over.
        At present, courts are closed!  Currently the courts are not re-opening until May 4th. This will likely be extended. The only thing the courts are hearing at present are absolute emergencies. This is presenting huge issues for some people and I expect this will only get worse. There are the normal issues that bring people to the Probate Court, motions for child support, for parenting time, discovery disputes, guardianships and a whole host of other family related matters. COVID 19 will add and already is adding a whole host of new and related issues: parenting issues around COVID-19 and transfer of children from one household to another, differences in vigilance between parents about hand washing, social distancing, etc.  and financial issues around loss of jobs, loss of income, decrease in retirement accounts and general uncertainty about the economy.  Recently I was working with a family involving issues around not just their separated family but the extended constellation of step-children going back and forth with yet another family unit. Mediation provides a way to address these issues and reach resolution quickly  and privately.  Not only is it an alternative to court, but at least for now it may be one of the few viable alternatives (assuming parties are not able to resolve it themselves.)       

         With in-person mediations not happening any time soon, Zoom mediations or mediations using other video-conferencing have become the new normal. Having been now mediating exclusively on Zoom since March, here are some benefits I am seeing:

         1. Scheduling is easier. One of the challenges with in-person mediations has always been getting both people in the office at a time that works.  With people being confined to their homes, even if they are working remotely, scheduling sessions has been much easier.

         2.  People are saving time not having to travel to my office.  I work with people from all over the valley.  I have had clients drive from Springfield, Pittsfield or Worcester to Amherst.  Online mediation and using Zoom has made that a non-issue.

         3. Although I prefer having people in my office and interacting in person,  I am finding that for many people being in separate spaces puts them more at ease. Maybe it is also being in the comfort of their own homes, but I find people more relaxed while using Zoom.

         4.  There is an efficiency factor when using Zoom.  First, I can screen share documents with clients. That includes the Agreement to Mediate, which I have clients sign online. It also includes financial statements and agreements which we can all work on in real time and together. This saves my client time and money.

         5. There is a quality I have not yet put my finger on when using Zoom but that feels something like, we are working collaboratively.  We have all signed on to the site, we have to talk one at a time and there is a certain order to it which makes the process flow.  By virtue of the way the app works, people can only talk one at a time. That is often an issue in mediation. They have no choice with Zoom but to wait until the other person has finished talking.

         6.      Although there have been reported concerns about Zoom bombing and confidentiality breaches, I have not experienced any of those issues to date.  The Zoom app is very easy to use, whether on phone or computer. I believe Zoom is working on making the app more secure and it may in the future result in having to press three buttons rather than one, but even then I believe that the Zoom platform is extremely easy to use and will continue to be.  This is even for the technically challenged.

        I look forward to a time when I can meet my clients in person again. I expect though that when this is over, I will continue to offer Zoom/virtual mediation as an option. In the meantime, I am grateful that I can offer my clients and prospective clients an option to resolve issues. 
Monday, April 13, 2020

Courts are Closed: Consider Mediation

Consider Mediation, Conciliation or Collaborative representation as an alternative to filing in court and as a way of continuing your case without further delay.  Due to the Corona Virus (COVID-19), courts are presently closed until at least May 4, 2020, except for absolute emergencies. There is a good likelihood that even if the courts open in May, there will be significant delays in cases getting heard as courts deal with the backlog and ongoing delays due to COVID-19.  Even more than ever, mediation, conciliation and collaborative divorce offers an efficient and cost-effective alternative to the litigation process.

Since March I have been conducting mediations via Zoom and in some cases via telephone.  My experience thus far has been universally positive. I believe the same can be said for my clients.  I certainly miss the human connection. However, given the alternatives, I have found Zoom mediations and meetings via Zoom to be efficient and technologically very easy. I have not had any problems with security or “Zoom Bombing.” One of the advantages for instance is the ability to share documents and work on documents together in real time.   Conducting mediations via Zoom will allow you to move your cases forward from the privacy of your own home ( or as I have seen in some cases, your attic, basement or even car) so that when courts are open, your divorce can be ready to be filed.  Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions or want to know more.