Step 1: Go to court to get and file the complaint.
As soon as possible after the abuse occurs, go to the district court nearest to where you live or the probate and family court in the county in which you live. You may also go to the superior court in the county in which you live, or to the Boston Municipal Court if you live in Boston, but most abuse prevention orders are filed in the district courts or probate and family courts. It is also important to know that if you are asking for visitation (supervised or otherwise) to be included in your order, only the probate and family court can order visitation in an abuse prevention order.1
You can obtain the complaint during normal business hours, Monday through Friday or you can find the forms online at our MA Download Court Forms page. To find the courthouse in your county, go to MA Courthouse Locations.
If you are in immediate danger of abuse and the court is closed, you may get an emergency order by going to the nearest police department. If you are issued an emergency order, it will only be good until the close of the next day that the court is open. For the protection to remain in effect, you must go to court before the close of the next business day to request an abuse prevention order.
1 See Guide to Completing G.L. c. 209A Forms, available on the Massachusetts Court System website
Step 2: Fill out the necessary forms.
The clerk will provide you with the forms that you need to fill out or you can find links to the forms you will need at our MA Download Court Forms page. On the complaint, you will be the “plaintiff” and the abuser will be the “defendant.” Write about the most recent incidents of violence, using descriptive language - words like “slapping,” hitting,” “grabbing,” threatening,” “choking,” etc. - that fits your situation. Include details and dates, if possible. Be specific.
Remember to bring some form of identification (a driver’s license or other identification that includes your picture) in case the clerk needs it in order to notarize your signature.
If the locations of your home, work, or school are confidential, you can ask the court clerk to keep the address confidential (“impound” your address)1 by filling out a Plaintiff Confidential Information Form. You can also check off various boxes on the complaint to request that the judge order that your home, work, and school addresses not appear anywhere on the abuse prevention order itself.2
If you need assistance filling out the form, ask the clerk for help. Some courts may have an advocate that can assist you. Another option is to find help through one of the domestic violence agencies listed on our MA Advocates and Shelters page.
1 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3(g)
2 See complaint for protection from abuse, page 1
Step 3: The ex parte hearing
When you file for an abuse prevention order, there is generally an ex parte hearing where the judge will read your complaint and ask you why you want an abuse prevention order. If the judge believes there is a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse, the judge can issue an ex parte temporary order with any terms that the judge believes are necessary to protect you from abuse. The order will usually last for 10 business days until the return hearing.1
Even if the judge does not grant you a temporary ex parte order at the ex parte hearing, it’s possible that you can still be given a court date for a return hearing where the abuser will be present. At that time, you can try to prove your case as to why an order should be granted and the abuser can object and defend himself/herself.
1 M.G.L.A. 209A § 4
Step 4: Service of process
The abuser must be “served,” or given papers that tell him/her about the hearing date and your temporary abuse prevention order (if the judge gave you one). The first step for this to happen is that the clerk-magistrate will send the following documents to the appropriate law enforcement agency:
- a certified copy of the temporary ex parte order;
- the order of suspension of the abuser’s firearms license and order for surrender of firearms; and
- a copy of the complaint and summons, which includes the return court date.1
Do not attempt to serve the papers on the abuser yourself.
When serving the abuser, the police are also supposed to do the following:
- immediately take possession of all firearms, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, ammunition, any license to carry firearms, and any firearms identification cards in the abuser’s control, ownership, or possession;2
- fully inform the defendant of what is included in the abuse prevention order;
- explain the possible penalties for violating the order; and
- provide the defendant with informational resources, including, but not limited to, a list of certified batterer intervention programs, substance abuse counseling, alcohol abuse counseling and financial counseling programs in the area. The law enforcement agency shall promptly make its return of service to the court.1
1 M.G.L.A. 209A § 7
2 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3B
You can find more information about service of process in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section, in the question called What is service of process and how do I accomplish it?
Step 5: The hearing
A judge will generally set the hearing date within 10 business days of when you first filed your complaint.1
You must go to the hearing. If you do not go to the hearing, your temporary order will expire and you will have to start the process over. If the abuser has received notice of the hearing, but does not show up, the judge can continue with the hearing and grant you an order that lasts for up to one year.2 If the abuser was not able to be served, the judge may order a new hearing date and extend your temporary restraining order.
Although you do not need a lawyer, it is often helpful to have one, especially if the abuser is going to object to the order being issued or if the abuser has a lawyer. Go to our MA Finding a Lawyer page for legal referrals. If you show up to court and the abuser has a lawyer and you do not, you may ask the judge for a “continuance” to set a later court date so you can have time to find a lawyer for yourself. Even if you cannot find an attorney to represent you, you may want to try to talk to an attorney to get advice as to what types of evidence you can bring to court and other ways to represent yourself. You can also go to our Preparing Your Case page for more information when representing yourself.
1 M.G.L.A. 209A § 4
2 M.G.L.A. 209A § 3