Cell Phones in the Courthouse:
An Access to Justice Perspective
“The lack of cell phones for pro se litigants is an enormous information disadvantage for them. They have no way to check what opposing counsel is telling them.”
Trial Court cell phone bans in Massachusetts place a disproportionate burden on self-represented litigants and low-income court users, who are already disadvantaged within the justice system. At the time this report was written, there were 56 Trial Court facilities across the Commonwealth with active cell phone bans. The burden of these policies falls most heavily on low-income and self-represented litigants. Some ways that self-represented litigants utilize cell phones for their court cases are to display evidence, conduct legal research, or access language translation services. In addition, court uses require their cell phones to coordinate the everyday aspects of their lives that exist outside the courthouse, such as ensuring proper childcare, obtaining transportation, or communicating with employers. Due to excessively strict bans, court users are left without cell phones, necessary tools for 21st century life.
Many litigants without an attorney are unaware of these bans, and thus arrive at courthouses with their cell phones. If litigants do not have a car to store their phone or an attorney to carry the device into the courthouse for them, they are often forced to either pay for cell phone storage nearby the courthouse – if they can afford it – or hide their phones outside court facilities, often in the bushes. In these cases, self-represented litigants also lose access to the essential legal information and evidence many people keep on their electronic devices.
To address this issue, Massachusetts Appleseed recommended that the Massachusetts Trial Court adopt a statewide universal permissive policy allowing personal electronic devices in courthouses, arguing that removing cell phone bans and replacing them with more permissive alternatives will advance the Trial Court’s goal of achieving greater access to justice across the Commonwealth.
Our thanks to interns Elveera Lacina, June Han, and Michael Jakubowski for helping us to make this project a reality. A special thanks to Rochelle Hahn of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute for encouraging us to pursue this issue, and to all the individuals and organizations who made time to share their experiences and insight.
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