by Bill Archambeault
Court funding may be slashed again this year, and employees and
resources are already stretched thin at overcrowded courthouses,
but an intensive effort is underway to improve access to justice in
The courts' commitment is reflected in a two-pronged approach,
with the creation of the Access to Justice Initiative last year and
the recent expansion of the Access to Justice Commission.
"I really feel that we are poised at an important moment, to
make real progress in this area, thanks to the commitment of the
leadership within the judiciary and the bar," said the Hon. Dina E.
Fein, who was appointed special advisor to the Trial Court on
Access to Justice Initiatives.
The two groups hope to play complementary roles as they
determine what needs to be done to ensure better access to justice
in Massachusetts, particularly for people of limited means, and
then delivering measurable results.
The renewed effort comes in the midst of a perfect storm:
funding for the courts continues to drop, legal services are forced
to turn away more people than ever, and people bruised by the
recession are increasingly turning to the courts for help securing
restraining orders, fighting for unemployment benefits and staving
off foreclosure or eviction.
"The reality is that our system of justice has not been fully
accessible, historically, to certain segments of our population,
including those of modest means, the disabled and people with
limited English language proficiency," Fein said. "The goal and
purpose of the Trial Court's Access to Justice Initiative is to
enhance access for those underserved groups."
A new assignment: the Access to Justice
Fein, who was also sits on the Access to Justice Commission and
is first justice of the Western Division Housing Court in
Springfield, said the Access to Justice Initiative was created last
year to improve access efforts across the Trial Courts.
Its first large undertaking was surveying Trial Court Department
judges and staff last year, which yielded more than 2,000 responses
that was the basis for an interim report that the Access to Justice
Initiative presented to SJC Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and
Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan
earlier this year.
Sandra E. Lundy, the deputy advisor for the Access to Justice
Initiative, said the data "helped us figure out where to go from
The survey responses indicate the wide range of services that
court employees feel are lacking, from technology improvements to
multilingual staff and documents to child care centers and ample
parking at courthouses. It also tracked what services are currently
available in which courts.
"The whole purpose of the Initiative is to bring about results,
demonstrable results," said Lundy, who is also an SJC senior
administrative attorney. "There are a lot of good programs in the
Trial Court, but not a lot of people know what's happening in other
For example, one court may have developed multilingual forms
that would be useful for other courts to adapt and adopt, she said.
Some of the fixes, like expanding Limited Assistance Representation
programs and providing simpler documents in multiple languages will
be relatively easy and inexpensive.
"Real improvements can be achieved, even given the challenging
fiscal circumstances of the courts," Fein said. "Of course, with
additional resources, certain initiatives would be more readily
available. If we had additional resources in our Office of
Interpreter Services, for example, we might be able to accomplish
more quickly our goal of creating multilingual forms for frequently
used languages. Our lack of resources may affect the pace at which
we're able to achieve certain milestones, but it won't keep us from
moving forward. I am certain that we will achieve real improvements
in short order, because of enormous support from people within the
courts and outside the system, and because our leadership is
committed to making these advances."
Other low-cost options being discussed include using college
students to help with translation services and training staff how
to provide basic help in filling out forms without crossing the
line and providing legal advice.
Other wish-list items like opening daycare centers at
courthouses so poor, working parents can make court appointments
more easily came as a bit of a surprise, Lundy said, and
illustrates the various ways that Massachusetts citizens find the
justice system difficult to use.
"There's so much work to be done that we don't know what the
outer limits of it are," she said. "People should be able to go to
court and not feel that the process is a mystery; they should be
able to feel that they were well-served and that there wasn't an
artificial barrier placed in their way."
It's been made clear that the Initiative is meant to be more
than just a fact-finding survey, regardless of whether money is
available to make substantial investments or not.
"Chief Justice Mulligan was very clear about that: he wants
results and he wants solid results," Lundy said, noting that he and
the individual Trial Court chief justices are all invested in the
effort. "They have all expressed a real interest to get something
Business, community leaders added to Access to Justice
On a broader spectrum, the newly appointed Access to Justice
Commission has added members from the business community and
nonprofit organizations to help ensure that its mission isn't
limited to just advocates from the courts.
SJC Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants is co-chairing the
commission with attorney David W. Rosenberg, of Rosenberg,
Schapiro, Englander, Chicoine and Leggett PC. The first meeting was
held in March, and a second meeting is being held this month, when
six working groups will present their two- to three-year game plan
"We should not shy away from doing what needs to be done to get
people help," Gants said. "Within five years, we want there to be
Those results will be measured, for example, by whether a single
mother who speaks little English can get a restraining order
quickly, or whether a poor family can get help navigating the court
system as it fights foreclosure proceedings.
"Whether people are better able to present their claims and
achieve results will be the measure of our success," said Gants,
who likened the mission of improving access to justice to providing
triage because people need varying levels of aid. Some won't get a
fair chance without full legal counsel, he said; some might need
only some legal assistance, and still others would have their needs
served if the state could provide better access to information.
"We're looking to strengthen all three prongs. If we can do
that, we'll be helping a lot of people."
While the Access to Justice Initiative has a more direct line to
court employees, the commission can appeal more directly to members
of the bar, public and Legislature, Gants said, noting that there
may occasionally be overlap between the two groups. "But this is
not a contest. We're all working together. We're all trying to get
to the same finish line."
Gants said the courts need to improve their Web sites, for
example, expand pro bono and "low bono" services, and tap into law
students as a resource. The commission is also looking at building
partnerships with businesses and community groups. For example, Sue
Marsh, the executive director at Rosie's Place, a Boston shelter
for homeless and disadvantaged women, could provide legal
information onsite to help its clients get the legal process
"Obviously, money helps, but we can't wait for there to be
money. Nor can we reasonably expect IOLTA funds to recover," he
said. "Folks who need us don't have the luxury of waiting until
we're in better times."
The Massachusetts Bar Association, which is represented on the
commission by James T. Van Buren, the MBA's Access to Justice
Section Council co-chair, has an ongoing commitment to access to
"In Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have such distinguished
judges and attorneys leading this critical effort. Through their
superb work, they are providing us with innovative solutions for
the future," said MBA President Valerie A. Yarashus.
Including members on the commission like Brent L. Henry, vice
president and general counsel for Partners Health Care System, and
Sandra L. Jesse, chief legal officer and executive vice president
of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts Inc. could help the
courts find grants and make the case for adequate court funding to
"The need is great. It's daunting, but we've got great people,
and we've made tremendous strides. The commitment's there," Gants
said, noting that Massachusetts courts are probably doing a better
job addressing access to justice issues than most states because of
the support of the judiciary and the bar. "But we still have miles