A special master is an officer of the court who performs special tasks on request from a judge. A judge can appoint a special master to assist with investigation and documentation in a case, as well as to administer claims in a civil matter. Usually, an attorney serves as a special master, although a person with specialized experience applicable to the case at hand may also be considered for appointment. Such positions are relatively unusual.
The scope of a special master's responsibilities can vary, depending on the case, the court, and the nation where the person is appointed. In a case with highly technical aspects, a judge may appoint someone to investigate and provide advice and information to help the judge understand the material being heard. Judges, while experts in the law, may not necessarily be familiar with technical trades and other issues, and can use expert advice when hearing a case to make sure they fully comprehend the material under discussion.
A judge can also opt to appoint a special master to manage complex claims, particularly in civil cases involving the government. People with a claim related to the case can contact this court officer and provide material to support their claims, such as verification that they are indeed a member of the class named in a class action lawsuit. Special masters process claims on behalf of the court and the government, offering payouts as appropriate and conducting investigations into other claimants to make sure they are eligible.
A special master is often appointed in complex suits where administering claims requires technical expertise. The judge selects someone with appropriate legal and professional experience. This court officer also has a support staff and can select staff members with special skills or areas of training to make sure they provide appropriate levels of service and assistance to people filing claims. The staff can assist with investigations, processing of claims, and generating court records.
The scope of authority and responsibility given to people in this position is sometimes criticized. In the United States, where special masters can potentially exercise considerable authority in government cases, some people believe they act as an extra-judiciary, with the same authority as the court system without the natural checks and balances. If a special master denies a claim, for example, it can be difficult to appeal and sometimes impossible, as the special master's office is in charge of all claims processing, including any theoretical appeals.