Probate and family court virtual registry’s potential praised by top official

  • The future home of the Hampshire Probate and Family Court at 15 Atwood Drive in Northampton. FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/10/2020 7:31:27 PM
Modified: 9/10/2020 7:31:10 PM

NORTHAMPTON — People looking to access the register’s office at the Hampshire Probate and Family Court have been able to do so over Zoom this summer, and Register of Probate Michael Carey is praising the potential of the court’s newfound technology.

Out of the 18 probate and family courts in Massachusetts, Hampshire County is one of nine registers’ offices to operate virtual registries over Zoom videoconferencing. Carey said that at his court, the virtual registry — which is open online from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — began in early July.

“It’s been developed and implemented because of what’s taken place in the past six months,” Carey said about the inception of the online registry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think that the way things were done is probably not going to be returned (to) in full. And this is the way going forward.”

According to Carey, the register’s office functions like the clerk’s office of the county’s probate and family court, which handles cases such as divorces, estates and adoptions. The vast majority of people using the probate court do so without a lawyer, Carey said. At a register’s office, people can access court information and dockets as well as get help with various court forms.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, however, Carey said the probate and family court looked for a way to provide the same registry services through “a different model.” From March to July, the register’s office at the Hampshire County Probate and Family Court worked mostly over phone and email, he said. But in June, a pilot program for virtual registries in Barnstable, Essex and Middlesex counties was expanded and Carey’s court benefited.

Carey said that his court’s virtual registry “can best be thought of as a recurring Zoom videoconference meeting.” He said its main goal is to limit the amount of people coming into court offices for in-person meetings.

According to a press release sent by the state court system, people looking to access the virtual registry can do so by clicking a Zoom link that can be found on the state’s website. From there, a host from the court’s register’s office will accept a person into the videoconference where they can answer general questions. For more complex matters, the host can also send a participant into a breakout room where they can meet with a court staff member or a lawyer through the Lawyer for the Day program, which provides legal assistance through volunteer attorneys.

Carey said the registry is “very much ‘forms-driven’” and that videoconferencing can help people with filling out such forms. He said that if people have existing files with the court, staff members can share their screens with participants so both parties can look at the same documents together.

“The services that are provided through the virtual registry are being provided by the same registry staff. We can answer questions, we can assist with forms, we can provide case-related information,” he said. “The only difference is that you won’t know if we’re wearing matching socks.”

Carey said the virtual registry has turned out to be a useful tool for both the public and court staff, adding that the new model is especially useful if people are having travel or child care issues.

Court staff is still trying to learn the technology and tell people about the new services, Carey said, but “it seems to have a lot of potential.”




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