E-Filing System Failing in Massachusetts Probate & Family Courts
Six years after investing in statewide e-filing system, only a fraction of domestic relations cases filed online in Massachusetts.
One of the main lessons learned during the Covid crisis by businesses and governments alike has been the need to utilize electronic systems to increase efficiency and reduce reliance on paper documents and the troubled U.S. Postal Service. Unfortunately, Massachusetts Probate & Family Courts have been unable to make the Trial Court’s electronic filing system work effectively throughout the state. As the Covid pandemic draws to a close, it appears that few improvements have been made to an EFiling system that Massachusetts began implementing more than six years ago.
No Electronic Filing for Most Domestic Relations Cases in Massachusetts
The Massachusetts Trial Court’s electronic filing system, which is “powered by Tyler Technologies”, allows parties and attorneys to electronically file divorce pleadings in Massachusetts Probate & Family Courts. Despite awarding the contract for the electronic filing system to Tyler Technologies in 2014, the state’s system still does not permit electronic filing of post-judgment complaints such as Complaints for Modification, Complaints for Contempt, or child support actions between unmarried parents.
Trial Court statistics indicate that in fiscal year 2020, there were 17,812 new divorce filings, 14,898 209C paternity filings (i.e. unmarred parents), and 31,678 complaints for modification and contempt in Massachusetts. Accordingly, the state’s electronic filing system only accommodates 28% of domestic relations cases by restricting electronic filings to divorce cases. It is unclear how a system that is six years in the making is still processing less than a third of the most common family law filings. What is clear is that more than 70% of new domestic relations filings in Massachusetts cannot be EFiled.
It is difficult to believe that expanding the EFiling system to include filings other than divorce cases represents a major “back end” technical challenge. Indeed, Probate Courts recently expanded EFiling to include Joint Petitions for Divorce, which suggests that adding new types of filings to the system is achievable.
In August 2020, the Housing Court expanded its EFilings to include all civil matters in August of 2020. As part of the announcement for the move, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said the following:
The expansion of electronic filing to include all civil cases is part of a continuous effort by the Trial Court to expand our electronic, EFiling and remote capabilities across all departments. This is both part of our mission to facilitate more efficient document filing and also to expand virtual operations and reduce courthouse visits to ensure the health and safety of the public and our staff during the pandemic.
While the expansion of the Housing Court to enable EFiling of almost all matters is commendable, the state’s Probate & Family Courts handle more than two and half as many cases as the Housing Court, annually. It is simply unclear why expanding EFiling appears to be a priority in the Housing Court and an afterthought in Massachusetts Probate & Family Courts.
Processing of EFiled Pleadings Lags Behind Filings by Mail in Many Counties
Even if the Trial Court expanded EFiling to include more types of cases, other problems plague the EFiling system in Massachusetts Probate & Family Courts. In many counties, court staff appear to prioritize filings submitted by mail, despite the alleged advantages of electronic filing, which ideally include instantaneous delivery of pleadings, the ability to review and process filings from remote locations and eliminating the need to physically scan paper documents into electronic form. One Probate and Family Court staffer recently told our office that the Court is taking more than ten days to review electronic filings while most paper filings are reviewed within 48 hours. As a result, attorneys are encouraged to file pleadings by mail at this Court, rather than rely on the county’s slow and deprioritized electronic filing system.
By failing to prioritize EFilings, Massachusetts Probate & Family Courts only drive more attorneys and litigants towards filing pleadings in person or by mail. Processing paper filings is unquestionably more labor intensive and less flexible than electronic filings, however, these realties appear to have little impact in many Probate & Family Courts, where EFiling are beset by delays and inattention.
As USPS Delivery Times Slow, Rules of Procedure Break Down
For decades, the Massachusetts Rules of Domestic Procedure have tacked an additional three days onto most notice deadlines to allow for the delivery of paper copies of pleadings by mail. With delivery times for first class mail declining rapidly in recent years, the chances of pleadings and notices reaching attorneys and parties within three days are increasingly unrealistic, however. The most straight-forward response to avoiding problems associated with ever-slowing mail delivery times is for courts to focus their efforts on avoiding the mail completely by encouraging electronic filings.
Improvement of EFiling Systems Requires Leadership at the Top
Administrative responsibilities in Massachusetts Probate & Family Courts is often split between elected officials - i.e. the county’s elected “Register of Probate” - and the unelected judge who is named “First Justice” at the same Court. The lines of authority between elected and judicial officials are often blurry, with tensions occasionally arising over issues such as staffing and filing procedures. Indeed, basic administrative procedures often vary widely from county to county. For example, some courts allow parties and attorneys to schedule motions based on publicly available judicial calendars while other courts tightly control when motions are heard. Similar variations often apply to EFiling, with some probate courts prioritizing EFiling while others do not.
The lack of uniform policies and procedures among individual Probate & Family Court means that decisive, statewide initiatives - like expanding and improving the EFiling system - are only achievable if there is strong leadership at the stop of the state hierarchy, starting with longtime Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey, who previously served as the Chief Justice of the state’s Probate and Family Court.
About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts. He is also a mediator and conciliator for South Shore Divorce Mediation.