Tackling access to justice needs

Issue July/August 2009 By Jennifer Rosinski

SJC taps Housing Court Judge Fein to lead effort

Massachusetts in July joined a handful of other states whose Supreme Judicial Courts are taking a hard look at access to justice. The SJC created a new position of special advisor for access to justice initiatives and named Housing Court Judge Dina Fein as the first titleholder.

Only three other states have statewide access to justice or pro bono initiatives created by the courts of last resort, according to the American Bar Association. They are the Alaska Supreme Court Fairness and Access Implementation Committee, the Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice and the Vermont Access to Justice Coalition. Many other states, Massachusetts included, have separate access to justice commissions. Still others have state pro bono programs, as well as foundations and bar-based
committees focusing on broad access to justice issues.

"Access to justice for all - fair and impartial justice before an independent judiciary - is a crucial dimension of democracy itself. Massachusetts is among the leading states fully committed to act on the fundamental principle that every resident who seeks justice will have meaningful access to our courts," SJC Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall said. "Judge Fein is uniquely qualified by talent, commitment and experience to … build on the judiciary's many successful initiatives to keep our courthouses open to all."

The SJC created this new position, in large part, because of the greater need for access to justice in a struggling economy, according to the court. SJC Senior Staff Attorney Sandra Lundy will serve as deputy advisor. Fein and Lundy took on their new responsibilities on June 15.

Fein, who will report to Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan, is charged with guiding and coordinating the Trial Court to broaden access to justice for all, including self-represented litigants, persons with low income, those with limited or no English proficiency and individuals with mental and/or physical disabilities. Fein is expected to develop long- and short-range goals, statewide strategies and best practices to accomplish those goals

"As a practical matter, our approach will be multifaceted, and is likely to focus on a range of opportunities over time," Fein said. Those include "using technology and self-help materials to increase meaningful access for self-represented litigants; expanding on existing pro bono and limited assistance representation programs to increase those situations in which a litigant has access to a lawyer; and fostering collaboration with public and private agencies in ways that benefit litigants who appear before the courts."

There is no deadline for the initiative, said Fein, who added she does not imagine implementing a single plan. Instead, she said, the courts are committed to examining its work "through the access to justice lens, on an ongoing basis." The end result will likely include practical ways to reduce barriers to justice for underserved groups.

"I can tell you, based on my initial conversations with people across the system, that there is a deep reservoir of commitment to this cause, such that I think the public will see real progress in relative short order," Fein said.

As special advisor for access to justice initiatives, Fein will work closely with judges, court personnel, the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, bar associations, legal service organizations, law firms, law schools and many others.

"Difficult economic times provide a greater incentive to expand partnerships with the bar and community organizations to ensure access to justice for all citizens," Mulligan said. "The Trial Court will benefit from Judge Fein's able assistance to achieve better use of existing resources, consistent replication of best practices already in place, and ongoing accomplishments to assure our progress in this important area."

The first step in the process entails Fein and Lundy developing an inventory of the access to justice programs and resources already in place, with the intent of identifying those that work best and can be replicated throughout the court system, Fein said. They are also reaching out to those both inside and outside the courts to determine what are the most pressing needs and how best to tackle those issues. Fein encourages anyone interested in collaborating on this project to reach out to the SJC.

"We are absolutely delighted to hear from anyone who is interested in working on this initiative," Fein said. "As we all know, there's plenty to do, and significant progress will depend in large part on harnessing the energy that is out there waiting to be tapped."

Appointed to the bench in 1999, Fein is currently the first justice of the Housing Court, Western Division, where she will continue to sit part time. She is a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and was formerly a member of the Massachusetts State Planning Board for Civil Legal Services. An adjunct professor at Western New England College School of Law, Fein currently teaches a course on access to justice.

Lundy was the staff member for the SJC's Steering Committee on Self-Represented Litigants, chaired by Appeals Court Judge Cynthia J. Cohen. In addition to her new assignment as deputy advisor, Lundy will continue in her role as senior staff attorney at the SJC.