Understanding Massachusetts' Domestic Abuse Restraining Orders

Learn all about this court order for victims of domestic abuse, including who can get one, how to get one, the effect of one, and what happens if someone requested one against you.

By , Attorney

In Massachusetts, victims of domestic abuse can go to civil court and ask for an abuse prevention order (also referred to as a 209A restraining order). An abuse prevention or 209A restraining order directs an abuser to stop harming the victim and to stay away from the victim's home and workplace. Violating this kind of order can result in criminal penalties, like jail time and fines.

When to Get a 209A Restraining Order

A person can get an abuse prevention order if they've suffered domestic abuse at the hands of a current or former family or household member, which includes dating partners.

Domestic abuse. Domestic abuse includes any of the following acts between family or household members:

  • physically harming or attempting to physically harm the victim
  • putting a victim in fear of immediate serious physical harm, or
  • using force, threat, or duress to get a victim to have sexual relations.

Family or household member. A victim doesn't need to be currently living with or married to the abuser to seek help. The law allows victims to seek an abuse prevention order to stop abuse from a current or former spouse, roommate, or romantic partner, a relative by blood or marriage, or a co-parent.

How to Get a 209A Restraining Order

The victim (called the "plaintiff" in court papers) must file a "Complaint for Protection from Abuse" that asks the court for protection from their alleged abuser (who is referred to as the "defendant"). In the complaint, the plaintiff will need to describe the acts of abuse and when they occurred (if possible).

The plaintiff can file the complaint at a courthouse in the county where they permanently or temporarily live. There's no cost to file. A victim doesn't need a lawyer to file or get an abuse prevention order, but they certainly can get one, if they so choose. (Court staff may assist victims in filling out forms but can't provide legal advice.)

Victims who find themselves in an emergency situation and need to get a restraining while the courts are closed can contact the police. The police may assist a victim in getting an emergency protective order from an on-call judge. That order remains in effect until the court reopens the next business day.

What Is an Ex Parte or Temporary Order?

Victims who are in imminent danger of abuse can ask the court for a temporary ex parte (par-tee) order at the same time they file for an abuse prevention order. The court may grant a temporary ex parte order immediately, without a hearing and without the defendant being notified. Because the defendant hasn't had a chance to tell their side of the story, the ex parte order is temporary (lasting only until the full hearing within 10 business days) and slightly limited in scope (although not by much).

An ex parte order will generally prohibit the defendant from:

  • threatening or abusing the plaintiff
  • entering or residing in the plaintiff's home (even if they share the home)
  • possessing any firearms
  • going near the plaintiff's work or the children's school, or
  • communicating with the plaintiff in any way.

If children are involved, the judge can issue orders relating to their custody and visitation in the temporary order as well.

A police officer will serve the defendant with the ex parte order.

What Is an Order After Notice?

After a full hearing where both parties have the opportunity to tell their sides of the story, the judge may issue what's called an "initial order after notice." This order can last up to a year. A plaintiff also has the option to request an extension prior to the order's expiration. Massachusetts law allows for the order to even be extended permanently.

In addition to what can be included in a temporary order, the order after notice may require the abuser to pay temporary child or spousal support or any of the plaintiff's financial losses that were a result of the abuse (such as lost wages, medical bills, attorney's fees).

Important! These orders only apply to acts by the defendant. They do not prohibit communication by the plaintiff to the defendant. Even so, the defendant cannot respond to the plaintiff's invitation to talk or meet without violating the order.

What to Do If Faced with a 209A Restraining Order

If you receive a notice that an ex parte order was issued against you, take it seriously. Despite being temporary, a violation of its terms can mean jail time and a criminal conviction. You have the option to hire an attorney to represent you.

Read the Order

Read through the order and all of its terms. If the order specifies no contact or communication by any means, this prohibition generally includes trying to communicate through a third party (meaning you can't ask a friend or family member to pass along a message to the plaintiff). You can also violate the order by accepting the plaintiff's invitation to meet or talk. Remember, the order only applies to you, not the plaintiff.

Go to the Hearing After Notice

You'll want to note the date and time for the 209A hearing after notice. This hearing usually occurs within 10 business days of the complaint filing. Defendants aren't required to attend this hearing, but judges can (and likely will) grant a 209A restraining order when they don't. At the hearing, you or your attorney can present evidence and testimony to dispute the plaintiff's allegations.

If the judge grants the plaintiff's request for a restraining order, the order will state how long it lasts. It might also give a date and time for a future hearing, at which time the judge will decide whether they are going to extend the order. Failure to attend that future hearing can result in an extension of the order for another year and possibly even permanently.

What Are the Penalties for Violating a 209A Restraining Order?

Violating certain provisions of an abuse prevention order can constitute a criminal offense. These provisions include requirements to refrain from abuse, vacate the household, stay away from the plaintiff, as well as any no-contact orders. Such an unlawful act carries up to two and a half years of incarceration and a $5,000 fine. Other violations are punishable by civil contempt. If the violation involves another crime—such as assault, stalking, or strangulation—enhanced penalties can apply.

For a violation, the defendant can also be ordered to pay a special fine of $25, pay for all expenses incurred by the plaintiff as a result of the abuse, and complete a batterer's intervention program. Additionally, the court can order the offender to stay out of defined geographic zones, wear a GPS tracking device, and attend substance abuse treatment.

Getting Help

If you are served with an ex parte restraining order or notice of a hearing, you should contact a family law or criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. If you've been charged with a crime for violating an abuse prevention order, talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.

If you're looking for help getting an abuse prevention order, reach out to a lawyer who specializes in family law or a victim's advocate. To find assistance or service providers near you, check out links to resources provided by the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides free forms and instructions online for petitioning for and responding to an abuse prevention order.

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 209A, §§ 1 to 5, 7, 11 (2021).)

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