Have our courts been improving? How can we make the courts better? Are we ensuring justice for the citizens and businesses in Massachusetts? These are just a few of the questions frequently asked when the Massachusetts courts are scrutinized, as they are on a regular basis.
In 2003, the Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts issued its harsh assessment to Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H.Marshall. Now known as the “Monan Report” (after Father J. Donald Monan, the committee chair, and available online at www.mass.gov/courts/courtreformfinal.pdf), it laid bare many of the inefficiencies and inequities in the court system. It was a call to action, one which is still being answered.
While there have been improvements, and several of them are described in articles in this month’s Lawyers Journal, it is probably fair to say that everybody agrees that there is plenty of room for improvement still.
The trial courts have made enormous improvements in assessing the rate at which cases are resolved, and in many instances can show increases in the speed with which cases are resolved. Lightened dockets have improved the likelihood of trials occurring as scheduled. We should expect continued improvements in scheduling for the benefit of lawyers and their clients.
It would also be helpful for the courts to explore greater use of more precise scheduling for motions, splitting schedules by the hour instead of scheduling, for example, all motions in a session at 2 p.m. And while there are many benefits to getting the attorneys together in court from time to time, there is no reason that more work should not be done by means of scheduled telephone conferences; countless driving hours (as well as client expense and all of that energy) could be saved.
Our courts have turned to some of the systems of measurement created by the National Center for State Courts. Known as CourTools, the system provides methods for assessing every aspect of court management. While our courts’ focus on throughput of cases is obviously important, there is another metric in the CourTools performance measures that cannot be overlooked: access and fairness. As noted on the Web site of the NCSC (go to www.ncsconline.org, then select CourTools under “NCSC Products” on the bottom left), the public’s satisfaction with the courts correlates more with the perception of fairness of the system, as opposed to who won or lost.
Not only do we need to measure this satisfaction, we need to ensure it. That satisfaction is achieved through: timeliness; the availability of comprehensible information and forms; the quality and competence of the staff at every level, including the judges; respect for the parties; and the fairness of the process for every party. (Access to justice is another essential ingredient, but that is a topic for another day.)
Each of us has a responsibility to contribute to the improvement of the courts. If something is not working, it is not enough to complain to your partners or associates. There are avenues to express your opinions. The MBA has just created its Standing Committee on the Courts, which will be charged with interacting with the courts at every level, seeking involvement in rules revisions and suggesting improvements in court administration. The MBA and the Supreme Judicial Court seek your evaluations of judges. The Court Management Advisory Board, which was created to specifically follow up on the Monan Commission’s report, meets around the state on a regular basis.
As always, the various MBA section councils want to hear your suggestions. And if something is working, don’t forget to shout it out. There are so many great employees in our court system. There is always enough time to say thank you.
Go green in 2008
The MBA’s Eco-Challenge Task Force has put together a wonderful set of MBA Green Guidelines which every lawyer and every law firm can follow. If you follow the guidelines, several things are guaranteed. Your energy bill will drop, and you will be reducing your impact on global warming.
We have made a few simple changes in our office on the energy front already: Incandescent bulbs have been replaced with compact fluorescents; the conference and work rooms have motion-sensing switches; everybody shuts off their lights religiously when they are not in their offices; most of the computer equipment is shut down at night; the old refrigerator was replaced with an Energy Star model. The cost (not counting the refrigerator, which needed replacement anyway): $200, for a 10 percent energy savings per month. Next up: replacement of aged fluorescent light fixtures with newer models. We expect our lighting bill to drop about 30 percent, and the investment will pay back within 16 months.
These changes, like most of the suggestions in the Green Guidelines, cost very little and are easily undertaken, but they add up to a big impact on our environment.
I hope you will join me in making the practice of law the most energy-efficient business in Massachusetts, and showing the public that lawyers will be leaders in fighting global warming and damage to our environment. For more on the MBA Green Guidelines visit www.massbar.org/ecochallenge.
One last thing: HAPPY NEW YEAR!