For Immediate Release

Boston, July 24, 2018 – A policy brief released today by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice examines the impact of banning cell phones and other personal electronic devices in Massachusetts courthouses. It finds that there are unintended consequences to the bans, especially for self-represented litigants, and that access to justice can be harmed as a result.

“It’s become increasingly clear that courthouse cell phones bans put litigants who are representing themselves at a serious disadvantage,” said Deborah Silva, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “Attorneys can bring smart phones into courthouses, and they often store their clients’ phones so they can be accessed throughout the day, if needed. But pro se litigants do not have that option and so they cannot access proof of payments, agreements, and injuries that are stored on their phones in the form of email, text messages, and photos.”

Trial courts in Massachusetts permit the use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices provided that they are turned off or set to be silent before entering a courtroom. However, chief justices at individual courthouses may set further restrictions and currently 56 trial courts across the state do not allow anyone other than attorneys, jurors, and court personnel to bring cell phones into the courthouse.

Interviews with attorneys, litigants, and advocates for affected populations, such as people with low incomes, survivors of domestic violence, and people who speak a first language other than English found the following:

  • Litigants are often unaware of courthouse cellphone bans until they arrive at court. A few courthouses offer safe storage of phones and other electronic devices in secure lockers, but most do not.
  • When faced with the option of missing their court appointment if they cannot get rid of their phone, litigants have resorted to hiding their phones in bushes around the courthouse, leaving a phone with a cab driver, and even stashing their phone in the bag of a bicycle locked up outside the courthouse. Outside busy courthouses, some vendors have started phone storage businesses. This works for some litigants, but others cannot afford to pay for storage.
  • Self-represented litigants who are able to store their phones outside the courthouse are often hindered without them in the courtroom because they do not have access to evidence stored on their phones that support their legal claims. Phones are also necessary for coordinating translation services and using hearing assistance apps.

Cell phone bans were originally put in place to prevent individuals from recording victims, witnesses, jurors, or court employees for the purpose of threatening or intimidating them, or even broadcasting courtroom proceedings to people outside the courtroom. While the report acknowledges that these may be legitimate concerns in certain instances, an examination of policies and practices in other states, finds that there are ways to ensure safety without disadvantaging self-represented litigants. Examples of policies in courts in Massachusetts and other states that permit cell phones in courthouses include permitting their use in the courtroom but confiscating them if they are used improperly; designating courthouse spaces in which cell phones can be used; and providing secure lockers to safely store cell phones.

“Cell phones have become an integral part of daily life for most people and banning their use in public spaces such as courthouses has serious consequences,” Silva added. “Living in a democratic society demands a constant balance of security with liberty. Cell phone bans have outlived their usefulness and we need new policies to ensure that everyone who enters a Massachusetts courtroom enjoys the promise of access to justice.”

The report, “Cell Phones in the Courthouse: An Access to Justice Perspective,” is available online: http://massappleseed.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Cell-Phones-in-the-Courthouse.pdf.

About the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice:

Massachusetts Appleseed’s mission is to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. Working with volunteer lawyers, community partners, and others, we identify and address gaps in services and opportunities in areas such as education, homelessness, and the court system. Through in-depth research, consensus building, and community problem solving, we develop powerful solutions for reforming the systems and structures responsible. Our work seeks to level the playing field and transform communities.

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