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What to Expect: The Age of Civil Cases in Massachusetts

In this blog, Robert Feinberg discusses how long the 29,000 civil cases have been active in the Superior Courts across Massachusetts and he provides an optimistic view (at least compared to prior eras) of how long you should expect your case to take.

This is the second blog that will concern the statistics of the Massachusetts court system and particularly in the Superior Court, where the bulk of my practice consists. Civil cases are brought in the Superior Court where the value is likely to exceed $25,000.

You may recall from last week’s blog that some 29,000 civil cases are pending across the Superior Courts of the Commonwealth. But how long have they been pending? I find this particularly interesting because when I started practicing law in the 1980s there really was a court backlog. You could wait five years to get a typical personal injury case tried. Now, there are some cases that are old but for the most part I don’t see the serious backlog any longer. I certainly don’t hear of the “strangulation list” that used to exist, particularly in Suffolk County, Boston’s county.

For a long time, the Justices have been very concerned that there not be a backlog. Statistics are meticulously kept. Attention is paid to the “thru-put”, an arithmetic comparison of cases entered versus cases disposed. The “thru-put” rate has been very good, indicating that virtually as many cases are disposed of as compared to the number that are filed in a given year.

According to Fiscal Year 2015 statistics, about 13,500 of the pending civil cases in Massachusetts Superior Courts are a year or younger. The rest are anywhere from 1-5 years but the bulk of the remainder are really 1-3 years old. About 12,500 are pending cases who have been in the court system for that 1-3 year period. Therefore, 26,000 of the 29,000 active civil cases in the Massachusetts Superior Courts have been pending for no more than three years. Again, at least half of those are pending less than a year and the others are distributed in the remaining two years of that three year cycle.

If you have a serious personal injury case and you know it should be brought in the Superior Court, you have good reason to believe that it will be resolved within three years and possibly even resolved within one year. I suggest to you that that is a dramatic difference from what we saw thirty years ago. That is a fortunate thing. As the old saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.

By all means, the Courts can do even better and there are many committees that are focusing on the speed in which cases are resolved. But quick resolution can be particularly challenging in an era of reduced court resources. The courts are often an easy target in which a cost-conscious legislature may want to find areas to cut. Those disputes among the branches of government are not for me to concern myself. It is important to note, however, that the size of the Judiciary and its staff are not growing. In fact, some Superior Court sessions have been forced in recent years to use law school graduates for volunteer clerkships. This would be unheard of in the Federal Courts. These inexperienced and unpaid individuals will help the Judges draft Memoranda and do other research. There are very no secretaries available anymore. With that in mind, the relative speed – I say relative, please note- of resolution is impressive.

Of course, if you have a serious personal injury case, it is your case and statistics may not be comforting. To that I can say two things: ask your lawyer for an update and a realistic timetable so that you can plan accordingly, and be consoled by the facts that your case is being litigated in the 2010s and not the 1980s. Maybe the 2020s will be even better.

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  • The Boston firm of Feinberg & Alban, P.C. specializes its practice in the area of personal injury.

    The attorneys serve the entire state of Massachusetts in addition to affiliating with lawyers in other states to handle cases outside of Massachusetts.

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    Boston Attorneys Win Highest Injury Verdict in Massachusetts in 2011 & 2012.

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