The Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission was created by order of the Supreme Judicial Court on February 28, 2005. The court acted on an application recommended by the Legal Services Corporation’s State Planning Board, drafted by the Board’s Consultant, Gerry Singsen, and presented by the Board’s Chair, former Chief Justice Herbert P. Wilkins, Justice Wilkins served as Commission Chair and attorney James T. Van Buren was Vice Chair.
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.
The Commission had five initial purposes:
- To encourage achievement of the vision, mission, core values and core capacities adopted in September 2003 by the Massachusetts State Planning Board for Civil Legal Services;
- To convene periodic Access to Justice Conferences and encourage participation in the conferences by members of a broadly-defined equal justice network so that better coordination of all parts of the effort to produce equal justice for all are more effective, more efficient and more successful;
- To develop and maintain a comprehensive understanding of the civil legal services provided to low-income people in the Commonwealth, to promote widespread understanding of civil equal justice, to address laws and regulations that affect meaningful access to justice and to report periodically to the Supreme Judicial Court on the status of access to justice in the Commonwealth;
- To provide a neutral forum in which important policy issues affecting access to civil justice for low-income people in the Commonwealth can be discussed and brought to agreement among a broad cross-section of providers, funders, clients, bar leaders and other interested parties;
- To consider important issues concerning the delivery of civil legal services, including controversial issues that are not being resolved by consensus, and to make recommendations for reforms, new initiatives and appropriate resolutions.
Activities of the First Commission
During its five years of existence the Commission pursued these purposes in a wide variety of ways:
- It studied the civil delivery system, including not only the large organizations that receive MLAC and LSC grants but also the extended state justice community of more than 100 additional organizations receiving MBF and BBF grants.
- It 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.
In 2006-7 it convened hearings in each region of the state 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.
Witnesses included low-income individuals who had sought services, lawyers and administrators from provider organizations, judges, workers from community-based agencies, private attorneys, board members from some of the organizations and governmental administrators.
The Commission met with the Chief Justice of each division of the Trial Court and explored what the witnesses had reported. The Commission subsequently appointed a committee to take the lead on issues of access to justice in the court system, including implementation of the Report’s recommendations.
The Barriers Report included 45 recommendations, many of which led to improvements through the collaborative efforts of many in the justice community. For example:
- With strong Commission support, the BBA’s Task Force on Expanding the Right to Counsel in Civil Cases issued a compelling report and mounted its first pilot projects (eviction defense). The Task Force supported eviction, juvenile court and civil contempt recommendations of the Commission.
- The SJC’s Special Committee on Self-Represented Litigants submitted its final report proposing many initiatives the Commission supported (e.g., unbundling, customer support centers, more court facilitators, better written materials and an increased leadership position on access to justice issues).
- The Trial Court Chief Justice was appointed to another five year term with an explicit charge to improve access to justice in the courts.
- Rules regarding the cy pres distribution of residual funds in class actions were modified to encourage additional financial support for legal services programs.
- The Commission proposed that the SJC add $50 to attorney registration fees to support legal services delivery (subject to an opt-out) .
- The District Court took steps to sort out confusion regarding referrals to Probate and Family Court of cases arising under G.L.c. 209A and issuance of support orders along with orders of protection.
- The Uniform Probate Code was adopted in Massachusetts, including Article 5 which provides a right to counsel for prospective wards.
- Small Claims Court rules were revised in line with many of the concerns raised before the Commission.
In the course of the Commission’s study of the delivery system it decided to explore two gaps in access to justice agendas in other states: social service organizations and administrative agency practices.
A very large number of social service agencies play relatively unobserved but crucial roles in the delivery of help to low income residents of Massachusetts facing legal problems. Broadly defined, there are literally thousands of workers providing agency clients information, legal advice and, often legal advocacy. The workers explain the rules, help clients fill in forms and often accompany their clients into administrative agency offices, administrative hearings, and even into courthouses and courtrooms.
The Commission conducted an online survey that confirmed these impressions and met with representatives of several networks of agency providers to explore ways that the legal aid programs could join with the social service agencies to help those agencies have better materials, more effective staff training, improved referral systems, enhanced quality control methods and heightened collaboration.
The Commission also began an exploration of the role of Executive Branch agencies in providing access to justice to low income residents. It appeared that far more legal issues of the poor are worked out in the offices and hearing rooms of state, federal and local governmental agencies than ever draw the attention of the courts. Topics raised included hearing practices, appropriate roles for lawyers and nonlawyers, 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 First Commission’s activities were reported on in four annual reports, a report on the series of four hearings. These reports are available in the website’s library.
The order establishing the First Commission called for that Commission to sunset its activities after five years. The SJC concluded that the AJC had made a useful contribution to access to justice and appointed the Second Access to Justice Commission in February 2010.
The Second Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
To Be Continued.
 Hearings were held in Springfield, New Bedford, Lawrence and Boston.
 More information on these meetings can be found in the Commission’s Third Annual Report, available at the Commission’s website.