MBA launches task force to address crisis in court funding

Issue January 2010 By Bill Archambeault

The Massachusetts Bar Association has created a task force to put a human face on the impact that drastic budget cuts are having on the courts.

The Crisis in Court Funding Task Force will compile stories of hardship among public users of the court system and will present a report to the House of Delegates meeting in March. If endorsed, the report will support calls for the Legislature to adequately fund the state court system, which was cut from an initial fiscal 2009 budget of $605.1 million to $559 million in fiscal 2010.

"(The task force) was created to document the real, human impact of the budget cuts on the courts. The goal is to show how inadequate staffing levels are affecting the people who come to the courts as litigants, jurors and witnesses," MBA President Valerie A. Yarashus said. "While it's incredibly frustrating for us as attorneys to see delays and long lines, it is often much worse for members of the public, who have to miss work unnecessarily and see their cases languish because the court system is underfunded and understaffed."

The 10-person task force, which is chaired by Martin F. Kane II of McGrath & Kane Inc. in Boston, held its first meeting on Dec. 16 in Boston. It will contact judges and clerks in courthouses throughout the state to collect accounts of how the budget cuts are delaying citizens from receiving access to the justice system.

A report by the Boston Bar Association analyses the statistics relating to the cuts. "Our report, by contrast, is intended to bring out the human side through documenting the real life stories of how this is played out across the commonwealth," Yarashus said, noting that, if approved by the MBA's governing body, it will be used as part of a lobbying effort for adequate court funding during the spring.

"Members can expect to hear a targeted call to action at a time when it is determined to be most effective," she said.

Kane said the problems are readily apparent in courthouses across the state. Many times, restraining orders are not being issued in a timely manner, he said.

Kane, whose practice includes working in probate and family courts, filed one modification in probate court in September and waited. A month later, he received a call from a secretary who apologized that a summons hadn't been issued yet, but the office was down from seven staff to two. A month later, he received another call explaining that the staff was doing everything it could.

"Two months to get a summons …" he said.

Court employees who have either been laid off or have had their workload increased significantly because of layoffs and a system-wide hiring freeze are clearly suffering, he said, and lawyers being inconvenienced by the delays caused by the staff reduction certainly have legitimate complaints. But it is the people who use the courts who have been the hardest hit, he said.

"Our charge is clear. We, as lawyers, need to be the voice of the people and get their story to the House of Delegates with demonstrative evidence about how the public is being affected," he said.

Ultimately, that message needs to reach the Legislature and increase funding for the courts, Kane said.

"What they need to hear is how the cuts affect Jane and John Q. Public," he said.