Over the past three years, the Superior Court has been engaged in two exciting initiatives – the firm, fair, trial date initiative with respect to civil cases, and the implementation of criminal time standards.
Firm, fair trial date initiative
In 2005, the Superior Court embarked on an initiative to improve the delivery of justice in a more timely and cost-effective manner and to establish more predictable trial dates in civil cases.
The court began implementing this initiative in Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Barnstable, Bristol and Worcester in January of 2006; however, due to the crushing civil caseload in Worcester, the initiative was in place in name only. With the opening of the Worcester County Courthouse in the fall of 2007 and two additional sessions, Worcester is positioned to implement the initiative fully by mid-2008, after it works through the cases currently scheduled for trial. In May of 2007, Hampden County began implementing the initiative after judicial vacancies were filled and the court acquired another courtroom in Springfield. The expansion of the initiative to Springfield followed the same path as all other counties – after meetings and consultation with the bar.
The major goals of the initiative – to reduce the need for continuance requests and to set reliable and firm trial dates – have been successfully met in almost every county. In evaluating the effectiveness of the initiative, the court compared the number of cases tried, settled or continued for the first quarter of 2005 – pre-initiative – to the latest comparable period under the initiative – the first quarter of 2007. The data reveal that the court scheduled 1,300 fewer cases for trial but resolved, by trial and settlement, about the same number of cases, approximately 1,050, while continuing 1,300 fewer cases. On an annual basis, that means that approximately 5,000 cases in those eight counties will not be needlessly scheduled for trial, only to be continued, saving attorneys costly and unnecessary preparation and litigants the emotional and financial ramifications of an elusive trial date. By mid-2007, the court has reduced continuances 22 percent statewide; and most remarkably, is trying approximately 60 percent of cases on their first or second trial date, a dramatic improvement.
Criminal time standards
In September 2004, the Superior Court promulgated Standing Order 2-86, as amended, on criminal case management to improve procedures in criminal cases, to promote uniformity in practice throughout the commonwealth, and to promote timely, fair and just resolution of criminal cases for victims, defendants, the public and all involved in the criminal justice system by the application of uniform and consistent time standards. The goal of time standards is to establish presumptive time periods for the routine criminal case while providing flexibility for cases with particular complexities or circumstances requiring a longer time period.
Protocols have now been put in place in almost every county to facilitate the progress of cases within time standards. In the first criminal sessions, Forecourt, the court’s case management system, is now used to manage cases from indictments to disposition. Working collaboratively, judges, district attorneys, defense bar and clerks select realistic dates for cases that fall within the given time frame. Dates for conferences, pre-trials and trial are established early on, often times at arraignment. The implementation effort has taken into account prosecutorial prerogatives and individual variations in practice in different counties.
One of the greatest success stories thus far has been in Suffolk County. Under the leadership of Regional Administrative Justice Margaret Hinkle, collaboration with the district attorney, defense bar and clerks, Suffolk County has reduced its caseload by 50 percent and has also drastically reduced cases over one year of age. A dedicated motion session, homicide session and time standards session have greatly enhanced the court’s ability to keep cases on track.
The most remarkable achievement for the court since implementing time standards has been the reduction, statewide, of cases pending for more than one year, from 62 percent to 26 percent of the caseload.