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Mass. chief justices issue letter
in response to Spotlight report

Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management of the Massachusetts Trial Court, and Lynda M. Connolly, chief justice of the Massachusetts District Court, issued this statement Monday, addressing the Spotlight series and pledging to make reforms, some of which are already underway, they said.

Joint statement by Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan and Chief Justice Lynda M. Connolly

Every person who comes before the courts in Massachusetts has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, to be accorded an opportunity to present his or her case and to have that case decided in a way that is fair, impartial, and timely. The Boston Globe’s report on debt collection in small claims sessions of the District Court focuses attention on an “industry which has swamped the court dockets with lawsuits.”

In the vast majority of cases, judges and clerks rely upon the presumption of ethical behavior by attorneys, who are officers of the court. In all but exceptional circumstances that reliance is well placed. When court officials are made aware of an attorney failing to adhere to the appropriate standard of conduct, such cases are investigated and presented through the Board of Bar Overseers to the Supreme Judicial Court. Such an exception occurred here in the case of Daniel W. Goldstone, who was disbarred by the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court on December 16, 2005.

In 2005 alone, more than 765,000 complaints were filed in the Commonwealth’s 62 District Courts. These included felonies, such as indecent assault on a child, misdemeanors, drunk driving cases, domestic violence restraining orders, mental health commitments, tort and contract actions, evictions, civil motor vehicle infractions, collection cases, and more than 100,000 small claims. Each of these matters required the attention of a judge, a clerk-magistrate, or both. Those who work in the District Court recognize that people who come before the courts in small claims cases are usually people of limited means and are often embarrassed to be in court under such circumstances. They deserve the utmost courtesy and consideration.

The Trial Court is committed to evaluating its practices and improving the delivery of justice. The Globe article raises some issues relative to small claims which the District Court Department has already begun to address. In several of these areas, significant changes have already been implemented. Those improvements include:

  • amendments to forms, which explain in understandable language exemptions and protections available to certain categories of debtors;

  • an improved website to provide information and help to self-represented litigants;

  • educational conferences for clerk-magistrates and judges on May 19, June 21, and June 22, which included training on small claims procedures.

Additional training for clerks and assistant clerks in the area of small claims will be rolled out geographically by regions commencing this Wednesday, August 2, 2006.

In April, 2006, the District Court established a Working Group which is moving aggressively to review, address, and make recommendations in a variety of areas including:

  • Revisions to rules, standards, and forms to make them more comprehensible to self-represented litigants.

  • Possible legislative changes related to filing fees, interest and costs, notice requirements, exemptions from execution, which is the seizure of personal and real property to satisfy court orders, including raising the ceiling applicable to personal automobiles.

A recent committee of the Supreme Judicial Court issued both standards for judges and a self-help guide for self-represented litigants. Both of these are relevant to and will enhance the courts’ ability to ensure fair and impartial justice in small claims litigation.

In summary, the Trial Court and the District Court Department are committed to improving substantive justice and the delivery of justice in every aspect of the Court’s business. The goal in every case is the same: to uphold the rule of law, to safeguard individual rights, to provide equal treatment and protection for all regardless of status or station, and to promote public trust and confidence in the fairness and justice of the Massachusetts Courts.

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