Massachusetts state courts consists of five layers of courts, each designed to handle a specific aspect of justice for the state. These include District Court (with subsections of Housing, Juvenile, Land, and Probate/Family), Superior Court, Appeals Court, and Supreme Judicial Court.
Most civil and criminal matters begin at the district court level. If a person is arrested or wants to contest a ticket, district court is where the process begins: there are district courts in each county of the state, with multiple district courts in the larger more populated areas for a total of 61, including Boston Municipal Court. There are currently about 160 sitting judges assigned to district courts in Massachusetts.
Jurisdiction of district courts includes all violations of city and town ordinances and bylaws (such as a ticket for dumping trash illegally), all misdemeanors (petty theft, driving an unregistered vehicle); felonies punishable by 5 years in prison; civil cases with damages up to $25,000. Courts hold both jury and bench trials (decided by a judge); magistrates handle many civil issues.
Boston Municipal Court handles over 26,800 criminal matters per year (fiscal year 2015 statistics), 5,000 probation violation hearings and 3,400 abuse restraining orders. The court also hears over 17,000 civil motor vehicle infraction issues, over 10,000 small claims and 3,000 mental health cases.
State-wide, district courts in the larger cities naturally see more cases than smaller, less populous jurisdictions. The following are approximately the number of criminal matters each jurisdiction handled in 2015: Worcester 11,500; Springfield 10,200; New Bedford 8,000; Lawrence 7,800; Lowell 7,700; Quincy 7,300; Fall River 6,800. The following jurisdictions saw about 3,500 criminal cases in 2015: Attleboro, Barnstable, Chelsea, Framingham, and Holyoke.
There were nearly 223,000 civil cases brought before Massachusetts district courts in 2015, including 1,100 mental health cases in Brockton, 4,300 small claims cases in Lowell, over 700 administrative warrants issued in each of Lynn, Malden and Worcester; and over 1,000 restraining orders issued in each of New Bedford, Lowell, Quincy and Brockton.
Massachusetts Housing Court: Housing court handles evictions, property damage cases, criminal cases that involve sanitary or building code violations (including appeals of tickets issued by inspectors), small claims, breach of contract and discrimination cases that stem from residential housing disputes. Mediators and free or discounted legal services are available to those with residential housing issues that may come before Housing Court. Jury trials are conducted in housing court.
For fiscal year 2015, statistics show Massachusetts Housing Court handled over 28,000 evictions (called summary process), 1,100 criminal cases, 4,700 civil cases, and 2,500 tickets for noncompliance with regulations.
There are more than a dozen regional housing courts in Massachusetts, but residents of several towns (all of those in Barnstable, Norfolk, Nantucket, and Dukes counties, as well as some towns in Middlesex and Suffolk counties) use local district courts instead.
Massachusetts Juvenile court: This court has jurisdiction over those under the age of 18 who are delinquent, in need of protection, youthful offenders (criminal charges), adoption, guardianship, and more. Proceedings are kept private; the public is not allowed to attend trials or receive information about most cases involving juveniles. There are 40 judges assigned to handle juvenile court cases in 41 locations across the state.
Recent statistics show Juvenile Court handles about 10,000 delinquency cases per year, over 700 guardianship cases, 387 paternity and over 10,000 care and protection or child in need of assistance cases.
Massachusetts Land Court: Foreclosures and zoning board decisions are primary functions of the state Land Court, which is comprised of seven judicial positions. Additional jurisdictions of the Land Court are redemption of real estate tax liens and portions of the Registries of Deeds. Land court handles about 2,400 new foreclosure cases per year and in fiscal year 2015 had about 9,700 requests for assistance for service members while approving 2,400 deeds. Offices for Land Court are headquartered in Boston but sessions may be held in various locations around the state.
Massachusetts Probate and Family Court: Divorces, guardianship, paternity, child support, estates, and legal name changes are all handled by Probate and Family Court, which has at least one location in each of the state's 14 counties (more if the county includes a large city). The total number of cases filed (most recent year's figures are for 2012) show 154,663 cases handled, including 3,200 legal name changes, 20,164 paternity cases, 1,438 adoptions, and 27,072 divorces.