The economy has impacted the Probate & Family Courts in Massachusetts in several ways. With all of the layoffs and underemployment going on, many parties with support orders for alimony and/or child support find that they cannot afford it any longer, and are petitioning the Courts to lower their obligations until they resume earlier income levels. (For the record, these are called Complaints for Modification). Their former partners, meanwhile, are equally pinched financially, and are bringing Complaints for Contempt at record levels when their former partners stop paying, or reduce their payments. (Bear in mind, many parents were never married to the other parent, hence my phrasing). Many of these people do not have the financial ability to hire counsel, and are filing their paperwork pro se, that is, without an attorney. Add to this mix the fact that the entire Court system has had a hiring freeze these past 4 years and we have a recipe for disaster, as fewer judges with little or no staff have been hearing more and more cases where the litigants had no attorney to assist them.
Four years ago. the Probate & Family Court started an experimental program to eliminate this backlog, and help litigants obtain at least partial legal representation. The program, called Limited Assistance Representation, allows litigants to obtain legal representation for part of his or her case, but to remain pro se for the balance. Whereas in the past an attorney had to charge a retainer and fee that contemplated remaining in a case until it reached final judgment, now parties could pay a more reasonable amount to an attorney to help them with only the more complicated aspects of their case. The Courts benefited by having more experienced attorneys present in family law cases to render advice and prepare and serve pleadings properly, and the attorneys benefited in having more work, now that they could ethically enter a case on a limited basis and withdraw when their role was accomplished. It also finally permitted "ghost writing" of pleadings, where an attorney can now ethically assist a client in preparing pleadings for a case without having to file an appearance and attend the hearings.
The program is now spreading to other courts -- Land Court and Housing Court, to name a few -- and should improve the overall administration of justice for family law litigants. Not all attorneys in Massachusetts are allowed to file an appearance on a limited basis: every attorney who desires to handle cases in this matter must take a special training course, regardless of their prior experience. However, by opening the door to allowing more limited income clients access to legal advice and representation on an "as needed" basis, and enlarging the pool of paying clients for lawyers, it is a Win/Win situation for the courts, the attorneys, and most importantly, the clients.