The Probate and Family Court serves an important purpose. It provides access to justice and resolution of familiy disputes through enforcement of the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But, like a hammer, the tools used to enforce those laws -- from the filing of a complaint up to an open trial on the merits -- are very blunt tools, indeed.
Not every family dispute is a nail...
Some cases do merit court attention, such as those where one party requires physical protection from the other. But many, many others could be resolved through out-of-court alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms, such as mediation, arbitration, and collaborative divorce. ADR can help families work through their differences and develop long-term, sustainable solutions while avoiding the divisive, emotionally destructive, adversarial atmosphere of the courtroom.
... but you would never know this from visiting the Middlesex County Probate and Family Court's official website.
The Middlesex Probate and Family Court (known to some as the Cambridge Family Court, because it is located at the intersection of Cambridge Street and 3rd Street in East Cambridge, Massachusetts) has an official website maintained by the Register of the Middlesex County Probate and Family Court. The site was, in its own words, "created to provide litigants and attorneys with easy to use and clearly organized access to information, procedures, forms and services." It turns out that "access to information" does not include information about out-of-court dispute resolution. Browsing the site for information about ADR does not turn up anything, and using the "site:" prefix to search the entire website in Google confirms what was already apparent:
- "mediation" — 1 false positive
- "arbitration" — 1 form
- "negotiation" — 0 results
- "conciliation" — 1 form & 1 false positive
- "alternative dispute resolution" — 0 results
The court's website does not include ANY meaningful information about mediation, arbitration, negotiation, or even the court's own conciliation program.
Thus, if you are experiencing a family dispute and turn to the family court for information, you could be forgiven for thinking that court is your only option. You will be steered toward complaints and other forms designed to get the matter in front of a judge. For a court that is struggling under the weight of its enormous docket and budget restrictions, and which by all accounts purports to be promoting ADR, this is a surprising oversight.
It should be noted that the Massachusetts Court System's Probate and Family Court Department website does provide information about alternative dispute resolution, including a guide to court-connected alternative dispute resolution services, a list of local dispute resolution coordinators and a list of court-connected approved programs for alternative dispute resolution services. These are useful resources, but unfortunately, they are also very difficult to locate by browsing the website. To find the "Guide to Court-Connected Alternative Dispute Resolution Services," for example, you would need to navigate first to "Resources" and then to "Guidelines and Standards" -- not exactly the first place somebody contemplating divorce would look. The "Self Help Center" portion of the website, likely the first place one WOULD look for guidance, does NOT link to this document.
Where does this leave disputing families in Cambridge and the rest of Middlesex County? Unfortunately, if they do not know to look beyond the family court's website, it will might very well leave them in a protracted court battle that could seriously damage the family's ability to communicate and work together on long-term shared interests.
Here is how the problem could be fixed in 15 minutes.
The Middlesex Probate and Family Court's website does not need a complete redesign. All it needs is the addition of a few lines of text, prominently featured on the website's front page. I provide them here:
Have you considered alternative dispute resolution? Please visit the following links for more information.
A similar change could be made to the Probate and Family Court Department's website. Thus, everybody who visits either site will be encouraged to educate themselves about out-of-court dispute resolution alternatives.
I humbly suggest that if even ONE family dispute resolves through mediation or collaborative divorce rather than trial as a result of this 15-minute change, it might well be the single best return on investment the family court has ever experienced.