The question of whether a spouse may be called as a witness in a civil case recently came up in the civil litigation surrounding the sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby. People often reflexively (and mistakenly) think that the issue is governed by the spousal privilege. In fact, in Massachusetts the spousal privilege is only applicable in criminal cases where one spouse is the defendant. M.G.L. c. 233 sec. 20, cl. 1. In those circumstances, the spousal privilege can be invoked by a witness to avoid being compelled to testify against his or her spouse. Com. v. Szerlong, 457 Mass. 858, 865 (2010). The testifying spouse can also choose to waive the privilege if the spouse wants to testify. Because the spousal privilege is applicable only in criminal proceedings, it is essentially irrelevant in civil litigation.
In business litigation, the question of whether a party's spouse is fair game for a deposition often comes up. Sometimes, the question arises simply because a lawyer wants to demonstrate the willingness to "take the gloves off." Other times the issue arises because the spouse may be one of the only people likely to have knowledge of facts that could be central to the case. Regardless of the reason, Massachusetts lawyers should be aware of the applicable rules and the distinction between the spousal privilege and the spousal disqualification, which are set forth at M.G.L. c. 233 sec. 20(a) and (b).