Task Force Member Helps Courts Face Pandemic

Ben Golden
Ben Golden serves on the Supreme Judicial Court's Access to Justice Commission

Three questions for SJC's COVID-19 task force member Ben Golden

With massive layoffs and upheavals in housing, child care and health care in the wake of COVID-19, the need for emergency legal aid has been critical. All the more so when the state courts were closed to all but emergency cases this spring.

Suffolk Law’s Ben Golden has long been involved in access to justice initiatives in Massachusetts. He was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court’s Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission in 2019, and since March has served on the leadership team of its COVID-19 Task Force, where he co-chairs one committee and serves on two others.

A former assistant attorney general in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, Golden now supervises students in the Health Law Clinic.

We asked him about his work with the Commission’s COVID-19 Task Force.

How has the Task Force weighed in on making the transition to virtual courts fair for poor and self-represented litigants?

The courts are still grappling with how to best conduct virtual hearings. We have emphasized that not all litigants have the same access to technology and that video and telephone hearings may be challenging. In addition, virtual hearings can be fraught events – some people don’t have access to the Internet or have limited phone minutes, unreliable Wi-Fi, children they’re taking care of, sometimes crying babies. 

Among other things, we worked closely with the Boston Bar Association to create Virtual Hearing Resource Guides for self-represented litigants in various courts. These guides provide litigants with information about what to expect and how to prepare for their virtual hearings.

How has the Task Force gotten information to people when they aren’t coming to the court?

One effort was to plan and host a series of Zoom question and answer sessions to address pressing community concerns related to domestic violence, housing, and family issues. The sessions were designed for social service providers and community advocates. The response was overwhelming, with hundreds of people, including many community advocates, attending each of the sessions. 

The housing event, for example, addressed questions like: “What if my landlord is harassing me for rent in spite of the eviction moratorium?” and “If I’m a subletter or undocumented immigrant, am I still covered by the eviction moratorium?”

We also created a series of short videos that explain critical issues: the types of emergency cases the courts are hearing; what to do if you can’t reach the court serving your jurisdiction; eligibility for COVID-19 testing and treatment; and new food aid regulations that make it easier to get supplemental nutrition (SNAP) benefits. 

In light of unemployment and underemployment, has the Task Force taken any action around consumer debt issues?

Even before the pandemic, about 1 in 5 Massachusetts residents had a debt in collection. Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been concerned about wage garnishment—money that’s taken directly from a person’s paycheck to pay off a debt. It’s an issue because so many people are suddenly making less money than they typically would. 

We collaborated with the District Court to allow people who believed they were having their wages garnished unfairly to be heard by a judge. Creditors can’t garnish wages when someone’s income is very low, and they can't force debt payments from certain types of income, like disability benefits. We worked with Greater Boston Legal Services, The Volunteer Lawyers Project, and the Harvard Legal Services Center to create and send letters to consumers explaining that their wages may have been wrongfully taken and that they could get legal help. 

[Editor’s note:  Suffolk’s David Colarusso co-chaired the Access to the Courts committee; as part of Colarusso’s work there, he and Quinten Steenhuis led a multinational group of volunteers in the creation of user-friendly online court forms.]