Probate and Family CourtPosted: August 15, 2019
by Hon. John D. Casey
Voice of the Judiciary
I have always considered it an honor to be a part of the Probate and Family Court, first as a practicing attorney, and then as a judge. Now as Chief Justice, I more fully realize and appreciate the special nature of this Court and its judges and staff. I have met with people from every division to discuss my vision for the Court, and, in the process, have learned about their hopes for and commitment to the Court. On a daily basis, the judges and staff rise to the challenges of working in a court that interacts with people during some of the most difficult times in a person’s life.
The Probate and Family Court is different than the other Trial Court departments. Domestic relations litigation and probate litigation are unique in that each case involves a family situation or dynamic and has the potential to span years. In most cases, the parties must continue to interact with each other during and after difficult litigation. Because of this, litigants require compassion and must be treated with dignity and sensitivity. Many need to be educated on court processes because they do not have attorneys to explain what they will encounter and what is expected of them.
The mission of the Probate and Family Court is to “deliver timely justice to the public by providing equal access to a fair, equitable and efficient forum to resolve family and probate legal matters and to assist and protect all individuals, families and children in an impartial and respectful manner.” Since the economic downturn of 2008-2009, the ability of the Court to accomplish this mission has been severely strained. In the ensuing years, the Court relied on judges and staff to go above and beyond, and so many did. In addition, the bar volunteered to help in various ways, such as the Lawyer of the Day program, bar association conciliation programs, and Attorneys Representing Children (ARC) programs, to name a few. The challenges for the Probate and Family Court were noted by Chief Justice Ralph Gants in his State of the Judiciary address in October 2017 when he stated, “The burdens we place on our Probate and Family Court judges are simply not sustainable; we need to reimagine how we do justice in our Probate and Family Court.” To that end, different groups worked toward creative solutions for case management and staffing, while Chief Justice Gants and Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey advocated for additional funding for the Probate and Family Court at the State House. In the fiscal year 2019 budget, the Court received additional funds to address the specific needs of the Court – the need to hire sessions clerks and legal research and writing staff, the need for case management triage, and the need for alternative dispute resolution resources. I am proud to report that as a result of these additional funds, the Probate and Family Court has taken steps to start the reimagination of the Court, as Chief Justice Gants envisioned.
As part of this process, the Court set a goal of having one sessions clerk for each judge, so that judicial case managers and assistant judicial case managers could then spend their time outside of the courtroom working on case management. With the additional funds, the Court met that goal, hiring sessions clerks throughout the Commonwealth. In addition, three law clerks and two research attorneys have been hired. The Court now has eleven law clerk positions and seven research attorney positions dedicated to assisting the judges with their legal research and writing.
With regard to case management, I plan to solidify and build on ideas that have been discussed for many years. First, I want to emphasize to all staff, judges, and attorneys that every case is not the same, and should not be treated the same. By engaging in the early screening of cases, staff will put each case on its own path, taking into consideration various issues, including whether the case is uncontested or contested, straightforward or complex, whether the parties are self-represented or have counsel, and whether the case is ripe for alternative dispute resolution such as conciliation, mediation, or dispute intervention. Second, litigants will be educated on court processes and referred to services like alternative dispute resolution. This model has proven successful in the Middlesex Division and Essex Division on so-called “block days” with cases that involve child support with the Department of Revenue and also parenting issues. Litigants are referred to on-site mediators who assist the parties in resolving both child support and parenting issues at the same time, and with only one court appearance. We are not the first or only Trial Court department to use differentiated case management. We are, however, the Trial Court department that faces the challenge of implementing a new case management process with a population that is overwhelmingly unrepresented by counsel and that has recurring issues. Training is required to successfully implement these changes to case management. We have begun this process by conducting trainings for sessions clerks and assistant judicial case managers. We will continue to train all members of the Probate and Family Court so that we can rise to the challenges we face and meet our mission.
As I start my second year as Chief Justice, I am aware that nothing we do to improve the Probate and Family Court is done without the help of many different people and organizations – legislators, attorneys, bar associations, staff, judges, Chief Justice Gants, Chief Justice Carey, Court Administrator Jon Williams, and Deputy Court Administrator Linda Medonis. To all of you, I say thank you. Thank you for sharing your ideas about how the Probate and Family Court can be better. Thank you for your patience, as we all know that successful change takes time. But most of all, thank you for supporting me and the staff and judges of the Probate and Family Court as we make changes to enhance everyone’s experience with the Court.
The Honorable John D. Casey was appointed to the Probate and Family Court in 2006 and became the Chief Justice in July 2018. He previously served as the First Justice of the Norfolk Division of the Probate and Family Court. Chief Justice Casey graduated from Bates College and Suffolk University School of Law.