Mass. judiciary eyes specialty courts, online filings

THINKSTOCK
THINKSTOCK

FITCHBURG, MASS., FEB 11, 2014……Specialty courts, online filing of briefs, centralized phone receptionists and increased security would be in the offing under the state budget request of the Massachusetts judiciary, Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence told a legislative panel Tuesday.

“Within two years, e-filing will be, we expect, available throughout the state for civil matters,” Spence told the House and Senate Ways and Means committees. He said a pilot program is launching in Boston for electronic filing of police reports, and told the News Service he expects criminal defense attorneys will one day be able to file online as well.

To keep all current programming, the Trial Court would need $615 million, and Gov. Deval Patrick has included in his budget proposal an additional $2.7 million, allowing the court to establish five new drug courts, including one juvenile, three mental health courts and making one of those courts specialized for veterans’ services, Spence said.

Including all of the new programs and advancements would cost $13 million over the $615 million budget, and would eventually enable the court to operate effectively with its 6,500 employees, a decreased number from prior years. Spence said the courts absorbed 20 percent of the state’s workforce reduction in recent years.

“We are out of crisis. We’re still significantly strained,” said Spence, who predicted that with the investments, within two years the 6,500 staffing level would no longer cause strain.

Spence said there are three warehouses “holding millions and millions and millions of pages of court documents,” the paper filing system requires data entry, and paper copies require a runner to move documents to and from a courtroom.

The Appeals Court has already begun to realize savings through electronic documents, even as the number of cases remains high, Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher told lawmakers gathered at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School.

“Approximately 4,000 appellate attorneys – more than two thirds of the attorneys who receive notices from the court – have signed up to receive only e-notices in their cases,” Cypher’s prepared testimony said. The court had 2,000 cases in fiscal year 2013, and expects the amount in fiscal 2015 to remain high as the court deals with the fallout from a “difficult economy,” Cypher’s testimony said.

Specialty courts will help relieve strain, though drug courts will require an increase in services available in the state, said Spence, who said the Bay State has not pursued specialty courts as much as other states, such as New York, which has twice as many per capita.

“Massachusetts was originally a leader in specialty courts,” said Spence. The plan is for the judiciary to phase-in eight new specialty courts every year for the next three years. There are now 25, Spence said.

Spence also wants to create court service centers at each of the state’s 15 busiest courts, an informational system used in Connecticut, which he said saves judges the time of dealing with improperly filed documents. Alternative dispute resolution, which Spence said was one of the first programs cut in the recent fiscal constriction, should also be increased, he said.

Courts will seek to centralize phone calls so they do not interrupt the work of court clerks, beginning in the Boston Municipal Court and eventually extending around the state, Spence said. He said the courts would also seek to increase security, as well.

“We’re looking both for hardware and some additional court officers for the system,” said Spence, who said the courts have 5,200 applicants for 60 court officer positions, and the Trial Court is developing an exam for applicants to take.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

 

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