MA ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION UPDATE
May 29, 2019
Highlights from the May 23rd Meeting of the ATJ Commission
Thank you to the Commissioners and guests who joined us for the most recent meeting of the MA ATJ Commission on Thursday, May 23rd, 2019 at the Adams Courthouse. Highlights and key takeaways from the meeting included:
- RTC Housing: On May 16, 2019 Mass Lawyers Weekly published an editorial endorsing a right to counsel in eviction cases.
- SNAP Gap: The Senate has included a $1 million line item in its budget to pilot coordinated dual MassHealth/SNAP enrollment.
- In April, Massachusetts repealed the “Family Cap” rule that limited assistance to children born to families receiving TAFDC benefits.
- Mass Law Reform has hired a new Language Access Attorney, Iris Coloma-Gaines.
- Courthouse Cell Phone Policy Working Group Presentation: Judge Cynthia Cohen (Ret.), Judge Paul Chernoff (Ret.), and Commissioner Jeff Catalano presented on the findings of their year-long investigation of courthouse cell phone policies and practices. The group documented their work and recommendations in a Report on Possession and Use of Cell Phones And Similar Devices in the Courts of Massachusetts, which has been formally adopted by the Commission. The group’s analysis included a review of existing rules in MA and policies in jurisdictions across the country, interviews with trial court leadership, visits to courthouses in MA, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and an examination of a magnetically sealed security pouch product currently used in some courthouses and by the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners. In carefully considering the balance of courthouse security concerns with the access to justice impediments caused by courthouse cell phone bans, the working group made eight recommendations. You can read the full report published on the MA ATJ Commission website here.
- Probate and Family Court Reform Update: Probate and Family Court Chief Justice John Casey reported on extensive court reform efforts currently underway. The court was impacted dramatically by the 2008 recession, which severely cut resources for the court at a time when case filings were growing significantly. Chief Justice Gants highlighted the crisis of the Probate and Family Court in his 2017 State of the Judiciary, which led to a year-long review of the court’s operations and procedures by retired Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Margot Botsford. Simultaneously, a leadership team comprised of members of the Probate and Family Court judicial staff and registry staff was tasked with reimagining the court’s structure in a budget neutral matter. Common themes from the two efforts were found and additional funding has been allocated to implement significant changes to how the court operates, including a new system of early case management to identify cases suited to alternative resolution tracks and hiring of additional law and sessions clerks to improve the flow of cases that proceed on a litigation track.
- Debt Collection Rules Reform Update: Judge Katherine Hand of the Appeals Court, Ben Golden of Suffolk University Law School, and Lindsay Funk, a J.D. Candidate at Harvard Law School, discussed the details and effects of a new rule and proposed revisions to an existing rule in MA. New MA Rule of Civil Procedure 8.1 requires documentation of debt ownership when filing certain cases, such as credit card debt collection cases. Lindsay’s research, which involved a comparison of court data from January 2018 and January 2019, revealed that implementation of the rule has reduced the number of cases filed, but has not increased verification/documentation for debt ownership in the remaining cases. Judge Hand explained that a stakeholder group is working on revising proposed changes to Uniform Small Claims Rule 7, which protects against consideration of exempt income sources when determining a defendant’s ability to pay on a debt judgment. The group’s revisions will be presented in a report to Trial Court Chief Justice Carey and, if approved, the proposed changes will be released for public comment before a final version is prepared for Chief Justice Carey’s consideration and possible implementation.
- The Commission extended its sincerest thanks to Commissioners Erika Rickard, Sue Marsh, Tony Doniger, Jim Van Buren, and Judge Lisa Grant for their time and contributions, as their terms expire in July.
- The Commission would like to thank Alex Blutman from Mintz, who has provided incredible administrative support to the Commission this year. We wish him all the best at Harvard Law School this fall!
- The Commission also expressed a debt of gratitude to Laura Gal, who will likewise be leaving her current role as Consultant to the Commission and member of the Executive Committee. A search for a new Commission Director is currently underway.
This meeting was the last of the Commission year. Please enjoy your summer and look out for a 2019-2020 Commission schedule in the fall! Thanks for all of your work this year.