We are all encouraged by the recent House vote on funding for the state's courts. Major areas of the court system that were targeted for deep cuts or outright elimination have been restored in whole or in part - yet there are critical hurdles still to pass - and significant room for improvement in many areas of court funding.
It is notable that the legislators heard the call of MBA members and legal professionals across the Commonwealth to preserve the funds needed to operate the Trial Court. Without these funds, the public's access to everyday justice will be denied or delayed by the threat of closed courts, dismissed staff and diminished resources.
In addition, it is noteworthy that the House restored funds for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and reinstated the hourly pay level for bar advocates, as these are the only sources of legal representation for many of our state's most needy citizens.
Among the details of the House budget, it is worth applauding that:
• The Supreme Judicial Court's information-technology budget request was maintained, as it will allow the court to continue moving toward more efficient electronic handling and processing of court documents.
• More than $300,000 was restored to the budget for the Mass. Legal Assistance Corporation, to help replace some of the funds cut this year from a program that is so vital to people in need across the state.
• Funds for the Family Court Clinics were restored.
• Partial funding for the court day-care program was restored. This program, which had been slated for elimination, will be able to continuing proving child-care services while needy citizens pursue their "day in court."
The MBA also is encouraged that the various amendments on court administration and management will not be acted upon at this time. As the largest representative of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals across the Commonwealth, we believe this is a more appropriate forum for the legislature to consider such significant and far-reaching issues.
Despite the encouraging news, however, this remains a critical time for our courts, as the Senate and then the entire legislature must still finalize and pass the budget. With that in mind, it is imperative to note the following:
On the heels of 800 court jobs that were eliminated as a result of budget cuts in the current fiscal year, the threat looms of additional staffing cutbacks next year. Most critically, the House budget for FY03 contains an $800,000 shortfall in the SJC administrative account. As this account funds the SJC's staffing and other resources, the possibility is high of significant layoffs in F03. And without staff and resources, the workings of the court will grind to a halt.
In a particularly troubling move, the House has completely eliminated the Alternative Dispute Resolution program. Without this service, cases that would have been settled through mediation prior to going to trial will now clog up court dockets even further because the parties no longer will have any other option for resolution.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to the effect the court budget will have on the public, on their access to fair and timely justice. The impact will be immense, and it will affect us all. Right now, citizens who want to pursue legal action are finding closed or shortened court sessions, longer delays in judgments, lack of critical personnel such as security officers and interpreters, and more. In some cases, individuals are being forced to hire court stenographers themselves, just to schedule a hearing. That isn't fair or timely justice by any stretch of the imagination.
If you haven't already done so, I urge you to contact your legislators to speak out on the court budget issue. Look on state Web site (http://www.state.ma.us/legis/legis.htm) for your legislator's address, phone number or e-mail access. Then check the MBA homepage for a letter you can copy or adapt to frame your own message. It's up to all of us to fight for the courts. Let your voice be heard!