Cover Image

April

Previous Story | Next Story

Lawyers Journal

Courts face funding crisis

by Valerie A. Yarashus

If ever there were a time in recent years to lobby for court funding, this is it. In October 2008, Gov. Deval Patrick called for voluntary budget cuts across the commonwealth. The leadership in the judiciary responded with significant voluntary reductions.

Even with those cuts, the funding for fiscal 2010 (the following year), was slashed by $24.2 million (more than 4 percent).

The governor's proposed budget this year would be even more painful, cutting a further $10 million from the courts. The House and Senate will make their own budget recommendations in the coming months.

As a result of these shortfalls, our state courts are in the midst of an absolute hiring freeze, and more than 700 employees have left the Trial Court since July 2007. Some courts have already closed (Natick District Court, Winchendon District Court and Essex County Juvenile Court in Lawrence) and more closings are anticipated in the future.

If ever there were a time in recent years to lobby for court funding, this is it. In October 2008, Gov. Deval Patrick called for voluntary budget cuts across the commonwealth. The leadership in the judiciary responded with significant voluntary reductions.

Even with those cuts, the funding for fiscal 2010 (the following year), was slashed by $24.2 million (more than 4 percent).
The governor's proposed budget this year would be even more painful, cutting a further $10 million from the courts. The House and Senate will make their own budget recommendations in the coming months.

As a result of these shortfalls, our state courts are in the midst of an absolute hiring freeze, and more than 700 employees have left the Trial Court since July 2007. Some courts have already closed (Natick District Court, Winchendon District Court and Essex County Juvenile Court in Lawrence) and more closings are anticipated in the future.

At the same time, there is more need than ever. A recent report by the Boston Bar Association found that in the short time between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2009, state case filings increased more than 10 percent (from 1,179,769 to 1,304,494). This makes sense, because in times of economic hardship, certain types of cases are projected to increase - there are more tenants who are unable to pay their rent because they are out of work; there are more noncustodial parents who have lost a job and are unable to make child support payments; there are more small businesses that seek to enforce contracts which have been broken because of another party's inability to pay.

As a civilized society committed to the rule of law, we want to encourage parties to bring their disputes to court for a fair resolution. The statistics show that this is precisely what our citizens are doing - 42,000 of them (excluding jurors and court staff) come to court every day. Yet what they find when they arrive is delay and inefficiency due to staffing shortages and sometimes decrepit court facilities which are bursting at the seams.

There is no doubt that some courts are faring worse than others. It appears that the Housing Court, Land Court, Probate and Family Court and District Court are the hardest hit currently. It is rare, if not impossible, to find a courthouse in our commonwealth which is fully staffed at the level recommended by the best practices developed by the National Center for State Courts. Even more disturbing is the fact that 42 percent of our courts in this commonwealth operate below 75 percent of the required staffing levels. This is resulting in long delays and lines at clerks' offices, as well as judges who report for work but are unable to go on the bench while they wait for a clerk.

When I first started practicing law 20 years ago, the typical time it took from case filing to trial date was significantly longer than it is now. Even worse, some cases would get stuck in the system and become outliers without any activity for years. I remember that my first solo trial in 1991 involved a contract dispute with an insurer, which was filed in suit in 1979.

Due to the hard work of many people, including Chief Justice Margaret Marshall (who appointed a Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts - also known as the "Monan Report" - and appointed the Court Management Advisory Board to follow through on the recommendations) and Chief Justice Barbara Rouse in the Superior Court (who helped institute time standards in the Superior Court), examples like that just do not happen anymore. Yet we risk going back to the bad old days if we lose more court funding and have to make even more painful cuts in staffing and services.

We applaud the BBA's excellent task force report just released in March 2010, which puts the fiscal year 2011 judicial budget crisis in perspective. Our own MBA task force on the court funding crisis, chaired by Martin Kane, Esq., has been working with his group to focus on the human impact of the funding crisis, in order to document the real-life stories of how our citizens are being affected by the delays which are now becoming a way of life in our courts once again. We hope to be able to release our report to our members and the public sometime this month.

As this column goes to press, the governor has already put forward his proposed budget, and the Legislature is in the midst of hearings on it. Chief Justice Marshall stated in her annual address to the Massachusetts Bar Association in October 2009 that our courts are in a "deepening crisis … Justice is in jeopardy in Massachusetts. These are strong words and I use them with care."

As members of the bar committed to protecting the rights of our clients, we would do well to heed Chief Justice Marshall's warnings and do everything we can to protect the functioning of the third branch of government by weighing in to support adequate court funding.

The best way to start is to pick up the phone and call your state senator and your state representative (www.mass.gov/legis/city_town.htm), and ask them to support maintenance level funding this year for the judiciary.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association