Foley Hoag has secured another important victory benefiting victims of domestic violence from Massachusetts’ highest court. The case, Singh v. Capuano, follows on the heels of several other key victories achieved by the firm’s Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Prevention Project.
In Singh, Foley Hoag represented a battered woman who fled from an abusive relationship and sought protection under the Commonwealth’s abuse prevention law, Chapter 209A. Instead of considering what was needed to protect the victim, the Somerville District Court devoted equal concern to the rights of the abuser, who was facing criminal prosecution for battering the firm’s client. The district court refused to conduct evidentiary hearings so that the defendant would not have to testify, and on one occasion reduced the protection to Foley Hoag’s client without granting an evidentiary hearing. Similarly, the district court granted c. 209A restraining orders that would be good only for very short periods. The judge also attempted to pressure the parties to transfer the litigation into the Probate and Family Court.
After granting Foley Hoag’s petition for direct appellate review – and such petitions are granted only rarely – the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued a decision strongly critical of the proceedings in the district court. The decision affirms the rights of victims to have full, fair and timely hearings and emphasizes that the victim’s safety should be the “exclusive focus” of the proceedings. The court noted that it was improper to pressure the parties to take the dispute to a different court, including by issuing very short-duration orders such as those issued by the district court in our case.
The SJC also clarified its earlier statements that lower court judges may draw an “adverse inference” from a defendant’s refusal to testify in an abuse prevention proceeding even when the defendant does so in exercising his or her right to remain silent because of ongoing criminal proceedings. Here, the district court judge had categorically refused – as a matter of policy – even to consider granting an adverse inference. The SJC held that this categorical refusal was improper.
The Foley Hoag legal team included Michael Licker, who argued the case before the SJC, Claire Laporte, Kevin J. Conroy and Rebecca Cazabon.
Several domestic violence advocacy organizations, including the Domestic & Sexual Violence Council, the Women’s Bar Foundation, the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University’s School of Law, Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts and Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, filed an amicus brief supporting Foley Hoag’s position.