The Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission was created by order of the Supreme Judicial Court on February 28, 2005. The Legal Services Corporation’s State Planning Board recommended the formation of the Commission (see application) to provide leadership, vision and coordination to the multitude of organizations and interests involved in assuring access to civil justice for the low-income families and individuals in the Commonwealth. There have been two Commissions since its founding.
The First Commission (2005-2010)
The Court appointed 21 members drawn from the judiciary, legal aid, the private bar, income-eligible litigants, law schools and social service agencies. Individuals who served on the First Commission are listed here. Former Chief Justice Herbert P. Wilkins served as Commission Chair and attorney James T. Van Buren was Vice Chair. The order establishing the First Commission gave it a five-year mandate to conduct its activities.
The First Commission’s activities were reported on in four annual reports, which are available in the website’s library.
- Studied the civil delivery system, including not only the large organizations that receive Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) and Legal Services Corporation (LSC) grants but also the extended state justice community of more than 100 additional organizations receiving Massachusetts Bar Foundation and Boston Bar Foundation grants.
- Offered advice, urged the community to collaborate more effectively, participated in various planning processes (e.g., the state support resource allocation study, MLAC examination of roles of leading agencies in the access to justice community, reconfiguration implementation) and encouraged innovation and leadership by others.
- Convened hearings in each region of the state (2006-2007) and received testimony from almost 90 witnesses regarding barriers to access to justice in their communities and what might be done to remove the barriers. These findings were set forth in the Report on Barriers to Access to Justice in Massachusetts (Barriers Report), dated June 2007. Met with the Chief Justice of each division of the Trial Court to discuss the findings. A committee was then appointed to take the lead on issues of access to justice in the court system, including implementation of the Barriers Report, which included 45 recommendations. This led to improvements through the collaborative efforts of many in the justice community
- Researched the crucial roles that social service organizations play in the delivery of help to low income residents of Massachusetts facing legal problems. Found that thousands of social workers often provide legal advice and legal advocacy for their clients. Developed ways for legal aid programs to help those agencies have better materials, more effective staff training, improved referral systems, enhanced quality control methods and heightened collaboration.
- Explored of the role of Executive Branch agencies in providing access to justice to low income residents. Topics raised included hearing practices, appropriate roles for lawyers and non-lawyers, rule-making, training needs, delivery system approaches, systemic needs for reform and the applicability in this environment of help for the self-represented party similar to what is found in the courts.
The Second Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission (2010-2015)
The Court initially appointed 23 members drawn from the judiciary, legal aid, the private bar, income-eligible litigants, law schools and social service agencies. Individuals who served on the Second Commission are listed here. Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants and attorney David W. Rosenberg served as Co-Chairs. The order establishing the Second Commission gave it a five-year mandate to conduct its activities.
The Second Commission’s activities were reported on in four annual reports, which are available in the website’s library.
- Proposed and the Supreme Judicial Court adopted a $51 “Access to Justice Fee” as a voluntary opt-out contribution to the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee with the annual attorney registration fee. Since initiated in 2010, this contribution has generated about $1.2 million per year for the IOLTA Committee to distribute among the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Boston Bar Foundation.
- Increased pro bono representation among lawyers through a pilot Appellate Pro Bono Program at the Brooke Court Service Center, with both a weekly Lawyer for the Day component and a panel of large law firms interested in working on select appeals.
- Conducted an extensive examination of access to justice initiatives that might enhance the experience of self-represented litigants in the Housing Court. The study revealed that nearly one-third of Massachusetts residents have no access to Housing Court. These litigants will generally not have access to judges who are experts in the complexities of housing law, nor to many specialized aspects of this court such the Tenancy Preservation Program. A committee comprised of Commissioners and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute has since successfully passed legislation expanding the state’s Housing Court, with co-sponsorship by dozens of legislators.
- Worked closely with the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, the Governor’s Office of Legal Counsel, and several administrative agencies to develop a set of best practices that will ensure that all residents in the state have access to administrative justice within state government.
- Studied the use of court service centers as an invaluable tool to provide information to unrepresented litigants. In light of the Second Commission’s findings, Trial Court formed a committee co-chaired by a commission member and Judge Fein. Two highly successful pilot centers, in the Brooke Courthouse in Boston and in Greenfield, began operation in 2014, with four more opened in fiscal year 2016.
- Supported legal aid in developing the Legal Resource Finder with support from the Commission’s Web and Technology Working Group and with financial assistance from a Legal Services Corporation Technology Innovation Grant. The online resource asks litigants to enter basic information about their cases to determine whether they are eligible for legal services and, regardless whether they are, to provide guidance as to where they can seek help.
The Third Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission (2015-present)
The Court appointed 30 members drawn from the judiciary, legal aid, the private bar, income-eligible litigants, law schools and social service agencies. Former Associate Justice Geraldine S. Hines and Susan M. Finegan, Esq. served as the Commission Co-Chairs from 2015-2017. In 2017, Justice Hines retired and Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants became Co-Chair of the Commission with Attorney Finegan.
The Third Commission’s activities to date have been reported on in two annual reports, which are available in the website’s library.
While the Third Commission’s work is ongoing, it has already made substantial progress on a number of key initiatives:
- Received one of seven Public Welfare Foundation/Justice For All grants to develop a strategic action plan for improving access to justice throughout the Commonwealth.
- Received a second round of Justice For All funding to pilot two ideas – one involving housing and one involving consumer debt – articulated in the Massachusetts Justice For All Strategic Action Plan.
- Investigated and reported on Massachusetts policy for courthouse possession and use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices, comparing Massachusetts practices to those of other states and making recommendations to the Trial Court Department for revisions to current policy and practice.
- Successfully advocated for statewide expansion of the Housing Court in the Massachusetts budget for fiscal year 2018.
- Spearheaded the allocation of an additional $8.3 million in funding for civil legal aid for victims of crime over two years from Federal Victims of Crime Act funds, with additional funding recently approved.
- Expanded the Civil Appeals Pro Bono Program – which has served hundreds of individuals with the help of hundreds of pro bono attorneys from dozens of firms and in-house legal departments since its inception in May 2015 – to cover the entire Commonwealth.
- Continued to develop the Access to Justice Fellows program, whereby more than 115 retired lawyers and judges have provided over 85,000 hours of pro bono service to over 50 different nonprofit entities since its inception five years ago.
- Endorsed the report of the Commission’s Access to Attorneys Committee, which studied how the private bar could meet the legal needs of litigants who cannot afford an attorney, including the use of fee-shifting statutes, limited assistance representation, and further education and training.