The Massachusetts court system is vast and can be confusing, especially for litigants going it alone, or pro se. Although we may think ourselves expert DIY-ers, attempting to navigate the courts without an attorney is akin to navigating Boston Harbor without a chart… you might make it, but the chance of running aground on submerged hazards is high.

Trial Courts

District Courts are the rough-and-tumble bedrock of the court system; there are 62 of them in cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth. In Boston, the various neighborhood district courts (e.g. Dorchester, Charlestown, East Boston) fall under the umbrella of the Boston Municipal Court Department. Boston Municipal Court (BMC) refers to the Edward W. Brooke courthouse which hears matters arising within the city’s downtown core. District Courts hear a wide range of matters, including civil, criminal, and juvenile. Criminal cases involve the Commonwealth as the plaintiff and the accused as the defendant. Criminal cases heard in District Court are limited to misdemeanors and felonies that carry maximum penalties of no more than five (5) years in prison. Civil cases involve disputes between individuals, businesses and/or public entities such as cities or towns. District Court civil cases are limited to those where recovery is not likely to exceed $25,000.00. When a case proceeds to trial, the “finder of fact” will either be a jury or a judge; when a jury is waived and the judge decides the case, that is called a bench trial. Whether to proceed with a jury trial or bench trial is yet another decision for which an attorney’s input is crucial, as each approach has its advantages and pitfalls. The District Courts also have Small Claims Sessions for civil matters up to $7,000.00. Small claims are heard by a clerk-magistrate, as opposed to a judge, and are geared towards pro se litigants. District court criminal, civil and small claims proceedings are open to the public, however, Juvenile proceedings are closed to the public due to the sensitive nature of the issues raised therein. Some District courts have special sessions for veterans, homeless, and substance abuse matters.

Superior Courts hear cases that exceed the District Courts’ limits, including criminal felonies punishable by prison sentences over 5 years and civil matters over $25,000.00. By this very fact, the Superior Courts are a little less hectic than the District Courts, and tend to involve larger, more complex cases. There are 20 superior courts in Massachusetts, and most are designated by the county in which they sit rather than the city or town. For example, in Taunton, you will find the Taunton District Court, and right next to it, the Bristol Superior Court. Many of the Superior Courts throughout the Commonwealth are beautiful, impressive structures, the type of buildings that inspire a reverence for the power of the law. The Superior Court has its own set of procedures which must be strictly complied with. Procedural missteps made by pro se litigants can very well doom otherwise good cases.

Probate & Family Courts hear matters such as: divorce, paternity, child support, custody, visitation, adoption, wills, estates, trusts, and guardianships. This is a specialized court with its own intricate set of procedures. While many litigants believe that they can handle such matters pro se, they often fail to protect their interests, and only seek out an attorney after they have received an adverse decision. The Probate & Family Courts are generally some of the oldest in the Commonwealth, and can be brutal, archaic, unpleasant places for all parties involved. In these crowded and chaotic settings, a lawyer will help you navigate the bureaucracy and expedite your case.

Other Specialized Trial Courts include the Land Court which hears matters regarding property disputes, foreclosures and local zoning issues. There is also a Housing Court which deals with residential housing matters, such as evictions, disputes between tenants and landlords, and residential code enforcement.

Appeals Courts

The Appeals Court is where you can challenge an adverse decision rendered at the Trial Court (District, Superior, Probate, Land, Housing, etc.) in both criminal and civil matters. Once a final decision is rendered at the trial level, any party may chose to appeal. Unlike a trial court case, the Appeals Court does not re-litigate the facts, hear from witnesses, or allow the introduction of new evidence. Instead, the Appeals Court examines the record from the Trial Court to determine whether a legal error influenced the judgment there. The lawyer’s role in the appeals process is to submit a written brief and make an oral argument as to why an error at the trial level worked an injustice on his/her client. Appeals are inherently risky, as judges of the Appeals Court extend substantial deference to their Trial Court colleagues. If, however, the Appeals Court finds there was a legal error at the Trial Court, it will most likely remand the case, which means to send it back to the Trial Court with specific instructions on certain points of law.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) is the Commonwealth’s highest appellate court, and was established in 1692. The SJC hears both appeals from the Appeals Court, and appeals docketed in the Appeals Court but not yet heard. In the latter instance, the SJC has the authority to take the case from the Appeals Court and hear it itself; the SJC does this when a case involves a particularly important question, usually regarding constitutional law or public policy.

Final Thoughts: This has been a basic, non-exhaustive overview of the Massachusetts State court system. I have not touched on the Federal courts or State agencies with hearing power, such as the Commission Against Discrimination. I have limited this discussion for both brevity and the fact that for most people facing legal difficulty, the District and Superior Courts are where it’s at. As a trial attorney, I work within the courts for you. Don’t go it alone!