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A special master is appointed by a court to carry out some sort of action on the court’s behalf. A special master is generally a subordinate official appointed by a judge to make sure that judicial orders are actually followed, or in the alternative, to hear evidence on behalf of the judge and make recommendations to the judge as to the disposition of a matter.
The role of the special master, who is frequently but not necessarily an attorney, is to supervise those falling under the order of the court to ensure that the court order is being followed and to report on the activities of the entity being supervised in a timely matter to the judge or the judge’s designated representatives.
Judges appoint special masters for many reasons, and sometimes these reasons overlap. For example, in a system where judges are usually inundated with cases, special masters may be simply appointed pre-trial in order to free the judge to spend more time on other cases. These masters are almost always attorneys. In divorce cases, a special master may make recommendations to the judge regarding division of assets and child custody.
Special masters are a unique brand of dispute-resolver relatively unknown to many mediators, facilitators, and public officials. A special master is appointed by a judge to oversee one or more aspects of litigation. They may be appointed pre-trial, during trial, or post-trial. Despite their relative anonymity, such masters have been credited with some of the most creative and innovative conflict resolution within the history of the U.S. legal system.