I spent all day yesterday in a very overcrowded Probate and Family Court (since all I do is divorce the only courts I go to are in the Probate and Family court system). Massachusetts, like much of the rest of the nation, is in a budgetary crisis. I realize this is true too of almost all divorcing couples. The hard choices that divorcing folks have to make on a daily basis are now being made by government, and in an ironic twist, these hard governmental choices are also impacting the clients of the Probate and Family Court most deeply.
Divorcing couples need to cut expenses, as their income stream is now covering two households. Less/no vacations, fewer clothes, or even an inability to pay the mortgage and maintain insurance are the choices divorcing couples have to make on a daily basis.
The state is making similarly difficult choices, and in one area I think very bad ones. The court budget has been cut drastically, and as a result, the Court System has a $32 million dollar shortfall from it’s requested budget.
Already, there have been over 1,000 employees either laid off or unreplaced in the court system, which was never overstaffed in the first place. Courthouses are being closed and now the hours of access are being changed. As of yesterday, September 19th, the counter clerks will only handle mental health emergencies and restraining orders after 3 PM, which will enable understaffed courts to catch up on undone clerical work. This is necessary, so I actually think changing the hours is a good thing.
What this does mean though, is that access to an essential service is going to be even more severely limited. Orders for temporary support, parenting time, and custody will be delayed. Folks with money may well opt out of the Court System and hire retired judges to handle their cases. This is already happening far more frequently than it used to, and as a result, there can be a very different type of justice for the wealthy.
Waiting to be heard on a day in Court is already taking longer, due in part to the increased load of cases being handled by fewer judges. Consequently, litigants with lawyers are having to pay their attorneys more to simply sit and wait, and can amount to serious money for folks who are already in financial crisis. The Pretrial Orders in most cases, require lawyers and parties to be there by 8:30am, and they may well have to wait until 12:30pm to be called. Assuming an attorney was charging a modest $250 an hour, amounts to $1,000 of waiting – wasted time.
The only solution right now seems to be to call or email your local legislators and ask them to reinstall the funds cut from the Court’s budget.