One of the most rewarding aspects of serving as BBA President is that I have the privilege to meet with the Chief Justices of our state and federal courts in Massachusetts to discuss matters of interest to the bench and the bar. It is a rare opportunity to talk on a one-on-one basis about how we may work together in the coming year, and one that I have been very much looking forward to. This week, I’ve had the honor of speaking with Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence of the Massachusetts Trial Court, Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate & Family Court, and Chief Justice Steven Pierce of the Housing Court, with more meetings to come throughout the fall.
As you know, supporting increased funding for the judiciary has always been a major priority of the BBA, and it is one that I fully intend to advance in my year as President. We have talked about the cause a great deal, but we don’t always go into the background details about why we consider it so crucial. Our courts face many challenges that can hinder access to justice, and even affect the quality of justice. Here are just some of the issues the courts face on a daily basis and some of the changes they hope to implement in the future to enhance efficiency and improve the court experience for all users:
- The caseloads of all of the courts are far higher than you might expect. The Probate & Family Court alone saw almost 160,000 cases filed in FY2013; altogether, the Trial Court saw just under 1 million filed. Even for cases that never make it to the courtroom, the accompanying paperwork, as well as the time spent handling them, stretches thin the limited resources of the courts.
- Likewise, the numbers of pro se litigants that come through the courts place a burden on court staff members, as they have to devote precious extra time to giving guidance and providing materials to litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and are not always prepared to properly present their cases.
- Relieving this burden and ensuring access to justice for those who cannot afford representation, or who have entered the system struggling with difficulties like substance addiction, is a priority of the courts – and of the BBA. The Trial Court has implemented several initiatives to provide support for these individuals, including the Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center, a workshop for self-represented litigants to access court services and individualized attention from volunteer attorneys. In addition, specialty courts provide treatment plans attuned to the particular needs of those dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health problems, as well as to struggling veterans. These are a critical part of the expansion of the courts. The latest budget for the Trial Court includes a line-item funding specialty courts, and this appropriation is a positive first step in the right direction. After speaking with the Chief Justices, I am convinced that there is a need to expand these programs further.
- Implementing advanced technological upgrades will be an essential part of streamlining the courts. In the long run, these improvements promise efficiency and ease of use, and we must be willing in invest in them today.
- Apart from the internal systemic maintenance that the courts require, the physical courthouses themselves need work as well. Several are long overdue for repairs and basic accessibility features, such as handicap entrances and routes.
Advocating for increased funding for the judiciary is certainly about improving the infrastructure for the court staff and judges; but it also affects litigants who pass through the courthouse, often without having a clear idea of how to pursue justice, and the attorneys who practice within its walls. This isn’t just a responsibility we take on by rote – it is one of the BBA’s core tenets. We recognize that our judges and court personnel do incredibly difficult work every day to see justice served, and we remain steadfastly committed to working with the courts to help them continue to do so. The people of Massachusetts demand, and deserve, nothing less.