Knowing that the Probate and Family Court Department is one of the busiest, we wanted to gather more information about its challenges and characteristics. So we recently walked over to the John Adams Courthouse to spend an hour with Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez.
During the course of our meeting, she shared with us several observations:
She sees staff in a number of divisions of the Probate and Family Court struggling to keep up with their duties, despite a strong work ethic. When people fall behind in their responsibilities, one very immediate consequence is delay in the issuance of a summons – without which there can be no service of process. There are also delays in docketing and scanning. For example, attorneys wanting to enter a complaint for modification or contempt cannot do so without a summons. Pro se litigants, of which this court sees many, need a summons to be served before they can get on the schedule to be heard. Delays in docketing may have an impact on the appeal process.
In a court whose judges are expected to do a lot of writing, law clerks are essential for getting decisions out in a timely fashion. Not having enough law clerks may impact timely rulings. Chief Justice Ordoñez also points to a rise in the number of litigants with limited English proficiency, and the difficulty of having interpreters available in the Probate and Family Court.
Because disputes among families can be fraught with emotion, security is a great concern. She observes that she recently received an email from an attorney citing two violent encounters in waiting areas where there is no security. Given the fact that litigants may have children with them, this is particularly concerning.
In another instance, two warring families showed up at the court unexpectedly. Witnessing emotional outbursts, a court officer tried to separate the parties. The court officer suffered significant injuries in the resulting melee.
The ramifications of what happens in this court go beyond a dispute between two parents. In making its decisions, the court must take into consideration the impact of their rulings on children and how they grow up. Placing a child with an abusive parent, for example, puts the child at immediate risk, and may sow the seeds for an abusive young adult down the line.
Like other courts, Probate and Family court is affected by economic cycles, in its own unique way. The national economic crisis that began in 2008 sparked an uptick in court activity, accompanied by an increase in unrepresented litigants unable to afford legal representation. Chief Justice Ordoñez explains that research seems to indicate that people may hold off filing for divorce in a tough economy. In Massachusetts, the economic downturns seemed to lead to an increase in child support modification complaints and contempt complaints – where those already separated or divorced or never married parents initiate more court activity.
She speculates that when the economy is better, people already separated or divorced may come back for a modification seeking an increase in child support. She hopes a better economy means a reduction in contempt actions because more people have steady jobs, making it possible for them to keep current on child support obligations.
We left our meeting with the Chief Justice with a great appreciation for the specialized skills required of judges and their staff in this high volume court, and the importance of their work in a civilized society.