Recently, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court Paula M. Carey, writing for the Boston Bar Journal said: “Although sometimes not considered as such, the Trial Court is often a last haven for those who have nowhere else to turn. We frequently must create order out of chaos in the lives of those who come to our courts.”
Did you know that every day some 42,000 people use our state courts? We have seven trial court departments and in some counties the number of litigants who are self-represented is north of 80 per cent. In many cases, these are people who walk through the court house doors with no understanding of how the legal process works. To complicate matters, the litigants may have limited proficiency in English.
Our judges are committed to administering fair and impartial justice to people from all walks of life. They are on the front lines of our justice system, left to sort out messy situations that the rest of us might characterize as horrific, bad, or ugly – in hopes that when litigants leave the court, they will be in a better place than when they came into the system. Our judges understand they may be seeing otherwise decent people at the worst time in their lives, suffering unspeakable emotional pain that renders them incapable of compromise or rationale behavior.
Subscribe to daily updates of written decisions from the Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court, and you will develop a new appreciation of trial court judges doing their best to craft solutions that comport with the law while trying to make order out of chaos. Here are just two dramatically different examples of what our courts are seeing:
The Adoption of Cecily (2013), a case involving a two month old baby who arrived at North Shore Children’s Hospital with life-threatening injuries after being left in the care of her father. The judge writing the decision makes a point of writing that “faced with the overwhelming evidence that the father caused the horrific injuries to Cecily, the mother failed to acknowledge the evidence and failed to separate from Cecily’s abuser.” Initiated by the Department of Children and Families in the Juvenile Court, this case ended with the Appeals Court determining it would be in this child’s best interests to terminate the parental rights of both mother and father.
Daniel L. McDonough vs. Kevin W. McDonough (2013), a case involving two brothers who, if the filings are to be believed, now deeply regret that they went into business together – with Kevin having locked Daniel out of the headquarters of their electrical construction corporation.
Unhappy with the arbitration clause both brothers signed when they started their business and the arbitrator’s valuation of the business, Daniel learns on appeal that “one of the risks to which [he] subjected himself when he bargained for and agreed to the arbitration clause – the risk of a legal or factual error by the arbitrator, with no mechanism for substantive review by a court – came to fruition.” Yet Daniel gets some relief from the court, with the court ultimately deciding that he does have the right to pursue a claim against his brother for breach of fiduciary duty.
In the interest of brevity, we won’t delve too deeply into another category of cases that present themselves in the form of Petitions for Partition in the Land Court. The typical case involves a family fighting over Grandma’s modest beach cottage after her passing. Some family members want the cottage sold immediately, while other family members want to hang on to it, even if the property is now worth less than the value of its mortgage. Usually unaccompanied by lawyers, these litigants are looking to the court to impose a sense of order.
Even businesses – ranging from sole proprietors to multi-national companies – must turn to the courts when events cause life to go topsy-turvy. Only the courts, for example, can provide a preliminary injunction.
These illustrations demonstrate the challenges our courts face every day, and the impact that the decisions of our judges have on the lives of individuals and our society as a whole.