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News Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission Releases Report on the Use of Cell Phones in the Courts of the Commonwealth

5/29/2019
  • Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission
  • Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Media Contact for Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission Releases Report on the Use of Cell Phones in the Courts of the Commonwealth

Jennifer Donahue and Erika Gully-Santiago

BOSTON, MAThe Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission today released a report with recommendations regarding the regulation of cell phones and similar personal electronic devices in state courts. The report was produced by a working group formed by the Commission, which worked closely with Trial Court departments to determine ways in which cell phones may be brought into courthouses, while addressing security concerns. The members of the Access to Justice Commission Working Group are retired Appeals Court Justice Cynthia J. Cohen, retired Superior Court Justice Paul A. Chernoff, and former Massachusetts Bar Association President and current Access to Justice Commissioner Attorney Jeffrey N. Catalano.

Many courthouses in the Commonwealth currently ban cell phones, due to the potential security issues that arise when cell phones are used to photograph or record courtroom participants and thereby intimidate or threaten them. However, the report also describes the challenges that court users, especially self-represented litigants, face when they are prohibited entirely from bringing their cell phones into courthouses. They may need their cell phones to present evidence, such as photographs or text messages; to access information about the litigation process or to complete court forms; to consult their calendars to schedule future court dates; to reach child care providers; or for other essential needs. In addition, courthouses with cell phone bans often lack on-site storage, forcing court users who do not drive to the courthouse to leave their phones with a third-party for a fee or hide them in bushes outside the courthouse.

The Working Group reviewed existing rules and policies governing the use of cell phones in Massachusetts courthouses; interviewed many members of the Massachusetts Trial Court and its security staff; analyzed more than 90 policies from other jurisdictions; and visited courthouses in other jurisdictions, at their own expense, to see how other state courts regulate the use of cell phones. Based on this extensive investigation, the Working Group concluded that "cell phone bans create unacceptable hardships and should be phased out in favor of alternative security measures that have been shown to guard against the dangerous misuse of cell phones in the courthouse while still meeting the needs of court users and visitors to have access to their devices." Among other steps, the report recommends a review of existing courthouse cell phone bans with an eye to reducing the number of bans, and considering alternatives to outright bans in courthouses with significant security concerns. For example, the report proposes a pilot test of Yondr pouches, magnetically locked cell phone pouches that allow court users to carry their phones but prevent actual usage.

"On behalf of the Commission, I would like to thank the Working Group members for the many hours they devoted to this invaluable report," said Attorney Susan Finegan, co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. "They have performed a singular service for all the people who use and serve in our court system by studying their needs and concerns, and then proposing clear guidelines to enable our courts to maintain security while allowing most court users to retain possession of their phones during their court visits." Attorney Finegan added, "I would also like to thank the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for its foundational study of the challenges that cell phone bans can create for court users, and the many members of the Trial Court and its security staff who shared their experience and insights with the Working Group."

"We are very appreciative for the extensive research and effort made by the Access to Justice Commission Working Group," said Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey. "These recommendations are very helpful to the Trial Court as we examine the use of cell phones in courthouses across the Commonwealth. We are mindful that this effort must be integrated to balance safety and security concerns with the need for increased access to cell phones in courthouses wherever possible."

Three initial steps that the Trial Court plans to take are: (1) reviewing and evaluating current courthouse cell phone bans with the intent to rescind any bans where it is appropriate to do so; (2) updating and revising the Trial Court's policy on possession and use of cell phones and personal electronic devices with the intent of developing a procedure to help allow the use of cell phones in courthouses by self-represented litigants; and (3) evaluating the viability of the use of Yondr pouches in courthouses where restrictions on cell phone use are still necessary due to security concerns.

Co-chaired by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants and Susan M. Finegan, Esq., of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo, P.C., the Access to Justice Commission includes representatives from the court system, legal aid organizations, social service organizations, bar associations, law schools, businesses, and other stakeholders in the access to justice community. More information about the Commission's work is available on its website.

Media Contact for Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission Releases Report on the Use of Cell Phones in the Courts of the Commonwealth

Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission

The Access to Justice Commission includes representatives from the court system, legal aid organizations, social service organizations, bar associations, law schools, businesses, and other stakeholders in the access to justice community. More information about the Commission's work is available on its website.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court 

The Supreme Judicial Court is the Commonwealth's highest appellate court.
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