Gants addresses civil case resolution, more at Bench-Bar Symposium

Issue November 2015 By Malea Ritz

At the annual Bench-Bar Symposium on Oct. 22, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants updated the legal community on the progress made on some of the initiatives set over the past year.

Last fall, the Trial Court departments with civil jurisdiction worked toward making the resolution in civil cases more cost-effective, and examined whether litigants could choose from alternative means of resolving the disputes to avoid the need for arbitration. Gants reported the beginning of ongoing improvement in this area.

Gants introduced three impending changes in civil litigation - the first being a wider selection of options for resolving disputes.

"It is premature for me to list them, since they are still a work in progress, but I am confident that you will be surprised by the variety of options, because I was surprised by the variety of options," he said.

Second, judges will help ensure a reduced time to resolution and that litigations costs remain reasonable. Gants also pointed out that Rule 26 of the Rules of Civil Procedure currently provides that discovery may not be objected to as long as the "information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." He disclosed the expectation that the Supreme Judicial Court's Standing Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure will amend the rule to provide for proportional discovery.

Third, in the District Court and the Boston Municipal Court, there will be an increased number of dedicated civil sessions where civil cases will be the sole priority. These dedicated sessions will be designed to enable attorneys to litigate civil cases at an affordable cost.

Gants emphasized the need for fair and proportionate sentences tailored for each defendant and designed to reduce the likelihood of recidivism and prevent future crimes.

He also explained the results of an examination of the state's legal system and introduced options for potential resolutions.

"In 2012, 46 percent of those released from state prison in Massachusetts were released without parole or probation supervision, which is one of the highest rates of unsupervised release in the nation. And of those released with supervision, far more are on probation than are on parole," Gants said.

He also examined some of the fees which are tacked on throughout the legal process and finished with a discussion of voir dire.

"We have issued a Superior Court standing order governing attorney participation in voir dire. We have designed a pilot project in which 15 Superior Court judges are using and studying panel voir dire. With funding obtained from the State Justice Institute, we have recruited 30 Superior Court judges to study attorney-conducted voir dire (and in fact that study group is meeting as we speak)," he reported.

"The people of Massachusetts are fortunate to have judges who are not only heard from at decision time, but also at events like our Bench-Bar Symposium, where lawyers and judges speak together as a united legal community and learn from each other," said Massachusetts Bar Association President Robert W. Harnais. "The MBA is proud to work with Chief Justice Gants and other members of the judiciary as we continue our joint efforts to advance our system of justice and improve access to justice for all."

Social issues and e-filing

Chief Justice Paula M. Carey also spoke about the increasingly pressing social issues she has noticed making their way into the courts system - substance abuse, domestic violence and mental health.

"The key to our efforts in addressing substance use and mental health issues for justice involved individuals is Specialty Courts," she said.

The Trial Court has funded eight additional Specialty Courts this fiscal year, she said.

"By the end of the fiscal year we expect to have 42 sessions up and running statewide," Carey said.

A task force has been established for dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues and to identify internal and external resources to fill in any gaps.

Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence closed by discussing a push toward a paperless legal future. He detailed the many efforts underway to modernize the system and use technology to help streamline the process.

The last county in the Superior Court converted to MassCourts, an automated case management system, bringing all of the seven Trial Court departments on a unified case management system, he said.

"I predict that by the end of fiscal year 2018, less than three years away, the Massachusetts Trial Court will be at least 85 percent digitized," he said. "At least 85 percent of the ongoing work of the Trial Court will be done with digital documents, not with paper."

E-filing and the increasing introduction of the attorney's portal among departments in the Trial Court continues. The Public Access Committee has also been working to create a set of rules to guide for publication of court cases online.

Spence wrapped up by adding that evidence-based practice in the work of probation is well underway.

The event concluded with a message to unite the legal community -- to maintain work as a problem-solving court and learn from each other to continuously improve the system.

Malea Ritz is an associate editor with The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Journal.