Access to justice issues remain a major priority in the Massachusetts Trial Court and legal system in general. For many entering the court system, the process can be confusing and overwhelming, particularly if there are barriers in language or reading level. What’s more, the rising numbers of self-represented litigants, who are often ill-informed about how to navigate complex legal processes, present a burden of time and resources on the courts, making the ability to render justice quickly and effectively much more difficult.
The BBA works to promote access to justice projects whenever possible, including within its classes of Public Interest Leaders. The Public Interest Leadership Program (PILP) selects new attorneys who have demonstrated a commitment to pro bono and public service to work as a group and select a project that will help the community and the profession at large. This past year’s PILP class chose to help with a major project: partnering with the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of the Trial Court, and the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center Working Group to assist with the implementation and development of materials for the Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center (CSC) pilot program.
The Brooke Courthouse CSC traces its origins to the Access to Justice Initiative started in 2009 by then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Margaret Marshall and Chief Justice of the Trial Court Robert Mulligan, and led by First Justice Dina Fein (Housing Court – Western Division) as Special Advisor and Supreme Judicial Court Senior Attorney Sandra Lundy as Deputy Advisor. The Initiative worked to identify barriers to access to justice and suggest innovations that would help to resolve them. In a survey of Trial Court staff, 57 percent of respondents cited self-represented litigants as a priority. After instituting information desks in different courthouses, in 2013 the Trial Court committed to developing formal Court Service Centers to serve as permanent, full-service fixtures. The CSC at the Brooke Courthouse is one of the first two being piloted in the state.
The CSC is an accessible workspace with a small play area for children, restrooms, and seating to make the space feel more comfortable. It has computers available for use and will be adding a small law library with a full-time law librarian in the future. When a litigant enters the CSC, a volunteer conducts a brief intake to find out the details of the case and whether there are any language needs or other special circumstances. The Center provides the forms for the courts and computer access to the Trial Court system, so CSC staff can pull up a litigant’s case to see what has happened and what comes next. This allows the staff and volunteers to tailor the information they give to each service center user and thus contribute to the overall smoothness and efficiency of the court system as the case advances.
Katherine Schulte, a member of this past year’s PILP class and a volunteer at the CSC, gave us a quick rundown of a few materials that PILP helped to develop to further prepare self-represented litigants to navigate the court system with greater awareness. These include a chart of courts with overlapping case jurisdictions, a list of potentially helpful institutional resources such as the Department of Children and Families or Public Defenders’ Office, and cover sheets for different form packets explaining in plain language what the forms do, how to fill them out, and the filing process.
According to Schulte, the materials and resources available in the CSC are specifically designed to address the needs and barriers that self-represented litigants often face. “We put a lot of effort as a group into learning about readability, and how to take legal jargon and decipher it so that it can be explained in a way that litigants of all backgrounds and reading levels could access,” she said. They placed a particular emphasis on creating and compiling resources for those with cases in Housing and Probate & Family Courts, since those departments have the highest percentage of self-represented litigants in the entire Trial Court.
In the month since its soft opening at the beginning of June, the CSC has served over 200 litigants – a sure sign that it is fulfilling its goals to educate and assist self-represented litigants and subsequently ease the burden on the court and its staff. First Justice Dina Fein sees the CSC working for the court staff, saying, “Anecdotal reports indicate that clerk offices have already experienced the value of the CSC as a resource for the public in general and self-represented litigants in particular. We anticipate a commensurate benefit for the courts themselves, which we are in the process of developing metrics to measure.”
We also reached out to Sheriece Perry, the Court Service Center Manager, who spoke to the reactions the staff has noticed from the self-represented litigants they have been aiming to assist. “Litigants appear to be very happy with the service,” she reported. “They appreciate simple things such as being able to get copies of documents, folders and envelopes – it has gone a long way.” Ultimately, the advantages of having dedicated staff and volunteers to assist litigants one-on-one and figure out the most efficient way to proceed are evident.
Projects like the CSC will undoubtedly advance the cause of expanding access to justice across the Commonwealth. As we have said before, the Trial Court has shown itself to be adept at considering and implementing innovations for the greater benefit of all its users, from litigants to court staff and the judges themselves. We support this initiative; and we congratulate the recently graduated PILP class that lent their devoted time and energy to such a critically important aspect of our justice system.