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When will the Mass. judiciary modernize?

By Laura Crimaldi, director, New England First Amendment Coalition

The Massachusetts judiciary is picking and choosing when it wants to serve the public and it’s making a system that’s already difficult to navigate harder for the public to access.

Last June, the court system announced it was scaling back on the number of hours that staff in the clerk’s office at some district courts would be available to answer telephones and assist people who come to the counter for assistance.

The clerk’s office is where people go to bail out a defendant, look up a case file, seek a criminal complaint against someone, file a civil complaint, and conduct other judiciary business.

In making its announcement, the judiciary said in a statement that “current staffing levels, caseloads and public concerns about extended backlogs compelled the decision to adjust office hours.”

The statement added that the court system has shed 1,348 people, or 18 percent of its work force, since 2007, “causing delays in many courts.”   It said access is available for “emergency” matters.

The plan also created a staggered schedule at the clerks’ offices in housing courts serving Plymouth and Bristol counties so that each of the offices in Fall River, Plymouth, New Bedford, and Taunton are closed two days a week.

I have seen these changes in action and they give the judiciary an inflexible and intimidating face that fails to serve the people that the courts are meant to accommodate.

At Quincy District Court, a sign on the door to the clerk’s office says services are limited after 2 p.m. While visiting the clerk’s office earlier this month, the staff refused to help me look up files until I identified myself as a reporter. When I asked to see a file, I was told it was 4:15 p.m. “Is there something about 4:15 p.m. that prohibits me from flipping through a file,” I asked. I got my file.

Even before the courts announced its latest round of reductions in hours, the practice was already in place. For example, during a visit to Attleboro District Court in late 2011, I stopped in during hours that the clerk’s office was closed. The staff had pulled down a metal door cover over the counter and locked the doors to the office. People waiting to bail out a defendant waited on a bench across from the counter for the office to reopen. It was hardly welcoming.

Under new hours announced in June, Attleboro District Court is among 16 courts statewide limiting telephone, counter service, or both from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

I’m not worried about lawyers and reporters having to jump through more hoops to get what they’re looking for from the judiciary system. I’m worried about the people, who by choice or circumstance, have to use the courts. Will they be able to advocate for themselves and get service when they want it? Probably not.

Imagine needing to go to a local housing court to evict a problem tenant and learning that you need to go to another community that’s at least 30 minutes away to take out a complaint or wait a few days.

What if you want to file a criminal or civil complaint? If clerks sitting in an office say you have to come back tomorrow because they’re busy, will you come back? Or is it not worth the effort?

The judiciary cites budget cuts as a reason for limiting its service. Well, what has the judiciary done to streamline its operations so it’s less reliant on manpower? There is only limited access to records online. Court files are all paper records and can only be accessed by going to court.

Yet, we live in an age where just about everything can be done online, including government functions like renewing your driver’s license or vehicle registration.

So will the judiciary modernize or will it continue to close itself off from the public it’s intended to serve?