Probate and Family Court maps strategy to improve
delivery of justice
The Massachusetts Probate and Family Court has been persistently
cross-cut in recent years by an increase in pro se
litigants and a decrease in legal representation, piled on top of
staff and budget cuts. It's the worst possible combination for a
court in which litigants are more likely to come into the court
process already highly stressed, inexperienced in the legal
process, and short on funds to hire an attorney.
While the increase in pro se litigants is out of the
court's control, one of the underlying causes of this rise is
rooted in skyrocketing costs of court litigation. Costs are rising
to due to the structural inefficiencies in court processes
themselves which lead to excessive waiting time for attorneys and
litigants -- which in turn run the legal clock.
These root causes are what Probate and Family Court Chief Justice
Paula M. Carey has set out to address. She is concerned about the
quality of information judges receive due to the dearth of legal
representation in the court, and also about the rising costs of
litigation stemming in part from the court system's structural
Budget cuts have prevented Carey from hiring a consultant to
address these problems. Then, last year, a combination of
connections made it possible for the court to get the needed
outside help. On suggestion of Glenn Mangurian, a member of the
Court Management Advisory Board, Carey drew on the resources of
Boston College's free MBA student consulting services. The BC
program brought in first-year graduate students to evaluate the
court systems and structures to see what internal functions could
be made more efficient. The MBA students, whom Carey commends for
their professionalism, evaluated the Middlesex, Suffolk and Norfolk
registries to recommend certain efficiency-improvement
"The court told us what they faced," student Alison Hamilton said.
"There were significant staff reductions across all counties, and
processes that didn't match the staff reductions." Additionally,
back-end processes were not effective in bringing cases timely to
court. The students recommended that the court redesign the
customer-facing areas from end-to-end in order to start and end
with the same court employee. Student Tomas Uribe called for making
the connection between the front and back office shorter. "We
should have people answering questions and talking to clients," he
said. Student Jason Shulman says, "We saw on our first day, a lot
of the people coming into court were having the worst day of their
lives. If we could improve that, we were proud," student Jason
The Franklin N. Flaschner Judicial Institute provided funding for
bench-to-bar conferences to address access to justice issues, and
hired Laura Freebairn-Smith, principal of Organizational Design
& Development Associates (ODDA), to design and facilitate an
all-day conference on November 2 of last year, which drew about 100
representatives from a variety of court constituencies.
A critical component was the initiative to concentrate on things
that the court could control, rather than issues outside of its
control - and, in essence, the wisdom to know the difference. "The
court can do nothing about the influx of pro se
litigants," says Robert Brink, the Flaschner Institute's executive
vice president and also director of the Social Law Library, "The
first exercise was what's in and out of the court's control."
The internal issues within the court's control are: timeliness,
scheduling, training, and customer service.
Before the conference, ODDA conducted a survey of 350 stakeholders
and assembled focus groups to review solutions and plans to achieve
the improvements, and create an understanding of the external
factors influencing the court's effectiveness.
The Flaschner Institute's Brink says the scientific polling
methodology differs from the old style bench-bar conference which
consists mostly of impressionistic views of court activities. "What
you don't need is a structured polite carping section," he said.
"This was a real poll with real criteria."
"It was great to have judges and lawyers in the room at same
time," Carey said of the November conference. "Judges said they
would be willing to stagger-schedule a motion [to reduce waiting
time], but other parties would need to have spoken to one another
before coming in front of the court." Norfolk County is currently
serving as a pilot project for the staggering of cases on motion
Brinks says the survey contained an 80 percent positive response
rate as to whether the court treats people fairly. Improvements
would include the needs for better case processing, and also the
determination of which improvements are dependent on money and
which are not.
The Probate and Family Court recently completed Rule 412 which is
headed to the Supreme Judicial Court Rules Committee. This
rule allows administrative approval of uncontested joint petitions
to modify a child support judgment instead of a judicial hearing.
"That doesn't mean that a judge can't schedule a hearing if, on
review of the paperwork, something seems amiss," Carey said.
"Our vision for the future empowered everyone to believe they are
part of our vision," Carey said. "It was a collective effort by a
lot of people to bring this forward … for just really being
committed to this process and committed to working together to
improve the way we operate our court to make it better for the
Christina P. O'Neill is editor of custom publications for
The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers