State renews access to justice effort, promises ‘demonstrable results’

Issue May 2010

by Bill Archambeault

Court funding may be slashed again this year, and employees and resources are already stretched thin at overcrowded courthouses, but an intensive effort is underway to improve access to justice in Massachusetts.

The courts' commitment is reflected in a two-pronged approach, with the creation of the Access to Justice Initiative last year and the recent expansion of the Access to Justice Commission.

"I really feel that we are poised at an important moment, to make real progress in this area, thanks to the commitment of the leadership within the judiciary and the bar," said the Hon. Dina E. Fein, who was appointed special advisor to the Trial Court on Access to Justice Initiatives.

The two groups hope to play complementary roles as they determine what needs to be done to ensure better access to justice in Massachusetts, particularly for people of limited means, and then delivering measurable results.

The renewed effort comes in the midst of a perfect storm: funding for the courts continues to drop, legal services are forced to turn away more people than ever, and people bruised by the recession are increasingly turning to the courts for help securing restraining orders, fighting for unemployment benefits and staving off foreclosure or eviction.

"The reality is that our system of justice has not been fully accessible, historically, to certain segments of our population, including those of modest means, the disabled and people with limited English language proficiency," Fein said. "The goal and purpose of the Trial Court's Access to Justice Initiative is to enhance access for those underserved groups."

A new assignment: the Access to Justice Initiative

Fein, who was also sits on the Access to Justice Commission and is first justice of the Western Division Housing Court in Springfield, said the Access to Justice Initiative was created last year to improve access efforts across the Trial Courts.

Its first large undertaking was surveying Trial Court Department judges and staff last year, which yielded more than 2,000 responses that was the basis for an interim report that the Access to Justice Initiative presented to SJC Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan earlier this year.

Sandra E. Lundy, the deputy advisor for the Access to Justice Initiative, said the data "helped us figure out where to go from here."

The survey responses indicate the wide range of services that court employees feel are lacking, from technology improvements to multilingual staff and documents to child care centers and ample parking at courthouses. It also tracked what services are currently available in which courts.

"The whole purpose of the Initiative is to bring about results, demonstrable results," said Lundy, who is also an SJC senior administrative attorney. "There are a lot of good programs in the Trial Court, but not a lot of people know what's happening in other departments."

For example, one court may have developed multilingual forms that would be useful for other courts to adapt and adopt, she said. Some of the fixes, like expanding Limited Assistance Representation programs and providing simpler documents in multiple languages will be relatively easy and inexpensive.

"Real improvements can be achieved, even given the challenging fiscal circumstances of the courts," Fein said. "Of course, with additional resources, certain initiatives would be more readily available. If we had additional resources in our Office of Interpreter Services, for example, we might be able to accomplish more quickly our goal of creating multilingual forms for frequently used languages. Our lack of resources may affect the pace at which we're able to achieve certain milestones, but it won't keep us from moving forward. I am certain that we will achieve real improvements in short order, because of enormous support from people within the courts and outside the system, and because our leadership is committed to making these advances."

Other low-cost options being discussed include using college students to help with translation services and training staff how to provide basic help in filling out forms without crossing the line and providing legal advice.

Other wish-list items like opening daycare centers at courthouses so poor, working parents can make court appointments more easily came as a bit of a surprise, Lundy said, and illustrates the various ways that Massachusetts citizens find the justice system difficult to use.

"There's so much work to be done that we don't know what the outer limits of it are," she said. "People should be able to go to court and not feel that the process is a mystery; they should be able to feel that they were well-served and that there wasn't an artificial barrier placed in their way."

It's been made clear that the Initiative is meant to be more than just a fact-finding survey, regardless of whether money is available to make substantial investments or not.

"Chief Justice Mulligan was very clear about that: he wants results and he wants solid results," Lundy said, noting that he and the individual Trial Court chief justices are all invested in the effort. "They have all expressed a real interest to get something going."

Business, community leaders added to Access to Justice Commission

On a broader spectrum, the newly appointed Access to Justice Commission has added members from the business community and nonprofit organizations to help ensure that its mission isn't limited to just advocates from the courts.

SJC Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants is co-chairing the commission with attorney David W. Rosenberg, of Rosenberg, Schapiro, Englander, Chicoine and Leggett PC. The first meeting was held in March, and a second meeting is being held this month, when six working groups will present their two- to three-year game plan and goals.

"We should not shy away from doing what needs to be done to get people help," Gants said. "Within five years, we want there to be concrete accomplishments."

Those results will be measured, for example, by whether a single mother who speaks little English can get a restraining order quickly, or whether a poor family can get help navigating the court system as it fights foreclosure proceedings.

"Whether people are better able to present their claims and achieve results will be the measure of our success," said Gants, who likened the mission of improving access to justice to providing triage because people need varying levels of aid. Some won't get a fair chance without full legal counsel, he said; some might need only some legal assistance, and still others would have their needs served if the state could provide better access to information.

"We're looking to strengthen all three prongs. If we can do that, we'll be helping a lot of people."

While the Access to Justice Initiative has a more direct line to court employees, the commission can appeal more directly to members of the bar, public and Legislature, Gants said, noting that there may occasionally be overlap between the two groups. "But this is not a contest. We're all working together. We're all trying to get to the same finish line."

Gants said the courts need to improve their Web sites, for example, expand pro bono and "low bono" services, and tap into law students as a resource. The commission is also looking at building partnerships with businesses and community groups. For example, Sue Marsh, the executive director at Rosie's Place, a Boston shelter for homeless and disadvantaged women, could provide legal information onsite to help its clients get the legal process started.

"Obviously, money helps, but we can't wait for there to be money. Nor can we reasonably expect IOLTA funds to recover," he said. "Folks who need us don't have the luxury of waiting until we're in better times."

The Massachusetts Bar Association, which is represented on the commission by James T. Van Buren, the MBA's Access to Justice Section Council co-chair, has an ongoing commitment to access to justice initiatives.

"In Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have such distinguished judges and attorneys leading this critical effort. Through their superb work, they are providing us with innovative solutions for the future," said MBA President Valerie A. Yarashus.

Including members on the commission like Brent L. Henry, vice president and general counsel for Partners Health Care System, and Sandra L. Jesse, chief legal officer and executive vice president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts Inc. could help the courts find grants and make the case for adequate court funding to legislators.

"The need is great. It's daunting, but we've got great people, and we've made tremendous strides. The commitment's there," Gants said, noting that Massachusetts courts are probably doing a better job addressing access to justice issues than most states because of the support of the judiciary and the bar. "But we still have miles to go."