Q&A with Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey
Q. How has the Massachusetts Trial Court been managing its business during this pandemic?
A. The Massachusetts Trial Courts have made extraordinary efforts to meet the ongoing needs of court users in the face of this unprecedented health crisis. There is no blueprint to follow for this type of crisis, and we have had to make quick decisions, often with limited information. I am proud of each of our 6,300+ employees who have responded with dedication, professionalism and creativity as we navigate these uncharted waters.
Almost overnight, the court system has transitioned from a nearly entirely in-person operation, to one handling myriad emergency matters throughout its seven court departments virtually, including by telephone conference on newly-created conference lines, and with enhanced use of videoconferencing.
We have encouraged the use of electronic filing, particularly among self-represented litigants, by providing a temporary waiver of electronic filing fees for indigent filers. The Supreme Judicial Court has also issued orders that permit litigants to expeditiously file pleadings by using electronic signatures and to serve documents on opposing parties by email. In addition, our Supreme Judicial Court has permitted electronic signatures of judges and clerks to accelerate the issuance of court orders and other documents.
Q. How has the Massachusetts Trial Court responded to the needs of attorneys, self-represented litigants and other court users?
A. Judges and employees have worked tirelessly to promulgate standing orders to change protocols in light of the crisis. The most recent versions of these standing orders are consistent with an order issued by our Supreme Judicial Court governing court operations.
Under the guidance of our Court Administrator, Jon Williams, the Trial Court launched a Help Line that enables the public to call and ask general questions about their civil and criminal cases, and to help them navigate the court system while the court system remains closed to the public, except for emergency matters. The Help Line is staffed by court employees on weekdays during regular court hours and can be reached by calling a single centralized phone number, 833-91COURT. We also established and published email addresses for more than 100 courts as an alternate way for the public to seek information from staff, who are either on-site or working remotely.
Multiple court departments collaborated to develop a remote process so that individuals can obtain orders of protection from abuse or harassment remotely, using a series of redesigned intake and order forms, as well as the use of telephone or video conferences for hearings.
We developed a robust resource guide for those struggling with substance use disorders or mental health issues.
Our Supreme Judicial Court’s Committee on Lawyer Well-Being also created a TechLine to assist lawyers with operating a virtual law practice.
Q. How have Massachusetts judges and clerks been managing hearings remotely?
A. Our judges have adapted extremely well, and I am very proud of their tremendous effort in concert with clerk’s office and probation staff. They are using different types of technology to conduct virtual hearings, including video and telephone conferences. We are pursuing opportunities to increase the frequency of hearings conducted by video, and we have recently begun live streaming certain hearings in select cases in our Superior Court, including a recent hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction in a high-profile case.
Our specialty courts have continued their weekly sessions via videoconferencing.
We have also implemented an option that allows for bail magistrates and bail commissioners to set and accept cash bails for individuals under arrest remotely in order to reduce contact between individuals being held in custody and bail magistrates or bail commissioners.
Q. What steps have you taken to ensure that the public is aware of the changes being made throughout the court system in light of the pandemic?
A. We launched a new Twitter account, @macourts, on April 2, 2020, and the account already has 1,600 followers. We created a COVID-19 webpage that includes frequently asked questions in multiple languages, daily updates, and judicial orders by department, and has received well over 150,000 page views.
Q. How are you reaching out to your judges and court staff?
A. Our IT team quickly provided all judges and court staff with remote access their court email accounts from home, so email is our main method of communication when we need to reach a broad audience, including our judges, clerks, probation staff, security, interpreters, court service center employees and facilities staff, all of whom play critical roles in our ability to continue emergency operations. Behind the scenes, the respective staffs of our IT and HR departments, and our other management departments, have been a tremendous resource.
Several departmental Chief Justices hold weekly conference calls with First Justices and management teams in the field in order to track progress, collect feedback and discuss the potential for additional operational modifications.
We have greatly expanded the number of online training programs that all employees can access remotely through our eLearning Center. We also launched a new wellness initiative to encourage all staff to remain focused on their physical and mental wellbeing during these very stressful weeks that are stretching into months.
Q. Do you see any of the modifications that have been made as a result of the pandemic being implemented into practice once the pandemic is over?
A. My hope is that we are able to refine some of the practices that have been implemented over the course of the pandemic, and to maintain those practices going forward, as it has become clear that many of these practices benefit our court users, both attorneys and litigants alike.
Whether we are able to incorporate some or all of these new practices into our day-to-day operations after the pandemic is over or not, I could not be more grateful for and impressed by the level of competency and commitment exhibited by all of our judges and court staff during this time.