Over the years, the court’s subject matter jurisdiction has expanded beyond registration and general title issues to include zoning and subdivision appeals, partition of land owned in common by two or more parties, and claims to establish the validity and/or applicability of zoning laws.
Origins and history. Established in 1898 to settle title issues, the Land Court is based on Australia’s Torrens System of Land Registration, developed in the mid-1800's by Sir Robert Torrens, a customs official who created a system of registered land ownership adapted from shipping manifests. The Land Court is the one place in the Commonwealth where you can register land, a legal process to secure the title or ownership and property rights of a parcel of land. The Land Court oversees all registered land in Massachusetts, as well as the state’s registered land offices in each Registry of Deeds.
Single judge model. Land Court judges have an individual calendar to allow more efficient case management; cases are assigned to a judge at the start of each case. The court’s single case system also enables judges to familiarize themselves with the history and details of a case, and stay involved as new issues develop.
“The justices do the bulk of case-related research, the writing, the analysis,” explains Chief Cutler. “Many of our cases are very complex and involve detailed review of extensive title information.” It is not uncommon for the cases to involve deeds of different owners going back 100 or 200 years.
Judges conduct case management conferences at the start of a case, and are able to manage the various elements and aspects of a case as it proceeds through the court, hearing each motion and presiding at the trial. Trial dates are certain, allowing lawyers to properly prepare their cases. The single judge case model also means that lawyers must schedule their motions to be heard in advance by the judge assigned to their case. Because the court does not have juries, the judges must make findings of fact and decide each case.
Other roles and responsibilities. Recorder Deborah Patterson serves a role similar to the clerk-magistrate in other departments of the Trial Court. The recorder maintains the records of the court, and decides certain types of cases. By statute, recorders can decide tax foreclosure cases, while appeals go to either the state Appeals Court or Supreme Judicial Court. Land Court title examiners review proposed changes in ownership, and can make corrections or adjustments to a title without a judge’s input.
Unique divisions within the Land Court include a survey department, and a legal department staffed by lawyers who are experienced title examiners.
Services for pro-se defendants. Even though its cases can be quite lengthy and complex, the Land Court takes pride in the fact that it is accessible to those representing themselves in court, as well as for members of the bar. The court encourages Limited Assistance Representation (LAR), a less expensive option for self-represented litigants. Land Court also offers five approved programs for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), where an impartial third person helps litigants settle cases without the need for trial.
“We like to make litigants comfortable with the process, so they don’t feel intimidated or scared when they’re in court,” says Recorder Deborah Patterson.
Coming soon: Lawyers on call. The Court is working with the Boston Bar Association to develop a pilot program for its tax session that will provide lawyers to self-represented litigants by phone while the Court is in session. Defendants will be able to step out of the courtroom during their case for legal guidance.
A model system. Only two states have Land Courts: Massachusetts and Hawaii. Developing countries frequently use the Commonwealth’s system of title registration as a model for their land ownership laws and systems.
1985: Land Court Chief Justice Marilyn Sullivan becomes first woman Chief Justice of a Trial Court Department.
1992: Land Court Chief Justice John Fenton, Jr., first Land Court judge to become Chief Justice for Administration and Management.
2001: Justice Mark Green becomes first Land Court judge appointed to the state Appeals Court.