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Massachusetts 2015 Bench-Bar Symposium: Improved Access to Justice on the Way

On Tuesday, October 20, 2015, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and Massachusetts Bar Association ("MBA") presented their annual Bench-Bar Symposium at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston, MA.

Bob Harnais, President of the MBA, delivered the opening address. In it, he emphasized that "the courts are a last refuge for people seeking help," a call to action on the dual addiction and mental health crises facing the Commonwealth. The MBA has been working tirelessly for criminal justice reform to promote the fair and effective treatment of persons entering the system to best serve them and our communities.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, delivering the keynote address, enforced this vision, asking whether the Courts were "spending dollars to collect nickels" in punitive fees levied against often-indigent defendants. The fees, opined the Chief Justice, may be further driving these already-marginalized people deeper into the shadows, decreasing their chance for rehabilitation and increasing their chance of committing new crimes and returning to the criminal justice system.

Chief Justice Gants also emphasized his personal belief that "All of our courts are problem-solving courts." To this end, there are three major changes in the works for civil litigation, which includes personal injury claims:

First, the Courts will begin implementing a voluntary program of alternate discovery schedules for cases of varying complexity. This program will allow litigants to agree to one of several different discovery tracks appropriate to the fact-intensive nature of their dispute. The goal of this program is to reduce the cost of litigation to litigants and increase access to justice where cases do not require extended fact discovery.

Second, this winter the SJC will be proposing changes to Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure 26 to mirror the recent changes to the Federal Rule. These changes will alter the scope of discovery to reduce the likelihood of one party intimidating another into an unfavorable settlement by making litigation to expense for them to continue. The proposed language to be added to Mass.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1) will require that discovery requests be, as in the Federal rule:

"Proportional to the needs of the case, considering the important of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit."

In the context of personal injury lawsuits, this change should greatly increase the injured person's access to justice against the almost unlimited resources of defendants and their insurance companies by adding a new protection against "bullying discovery."

Third, the civil courts will be adding more dedicated civil sessions. This means that civil litigation, including personal injury litigation, will no longer be relegated to the back-burner behind criminal and domestic abuse cases. The courts will also be zealously sticking to time deadlines in these cases to prevent litigation from dragging out far beyond the estimated resolution, as so often happens now with perennially delayed hearing and trial dates due to the overloaded court system. Increasing access to judges in dedicated civil sessions and sticking to time deadlines will give injured persons more efficient access to justice, reducing the costs of litigation and time that injured people must wait to receive the recovery they deserve.

In total, the changes that our court system is implementing could not be done without a massive joint effort by the Courts, the Legislature, and the Bar. These are improvements in the areas we most need to improve: efficient access to civil justice and a smart approach to criminal justice. Chief Justice Gants believes that our Courts are "problem-solving courts," and yesterday he showed that he is a great problem-solver himself, dedicated to making this vision a reality.

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