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Bar Journal - Winter 2005

A Vision of Justice: The Future of the New Hampshire Courts

By:

The following is a condensed version of the report of the The New Hampshire Supreme Court Committee on Justice System Needs and Priorities, published September 1, 2004. Attorney Bruce W. Felmly chaired the group. Visit http://www.courts.state.nh.us/press/felmlyreportweb.pdf for the full-text of the report.

Draft Judicial Branch
Mission Statement

To preserve the rule of law and to protect the rights and liberties guaranteed by the United States and New Hampshire Constitutions, the courts will provide accessible, prompt, and efficient forums for the fair and independent administration of justice, with respect for the dignity of all we serve.

Although the core values and goals of New Hampshire’s justice system are noted or described in a variety of constitutional passages, statutes, cases, or in the commentary of those who have served that system, there is no mission statement currently in place. The Committee believes a modern, concise statement of the mission of the court system is important. Ideally, this statement of values and goals will serve as a foundation for that system, and a beacon to all those looking to that system for direction. The Committee has drafted and recommends the above Mission Statement for the New Hampshire court system.

INTRODUCTION

The courts must be centered on serving the needs of the people. To succeed and to endure, the judicial system must be understood by and have the support and confidence of the citizens it serves. The touchstone of this report is the belief that a fair, efficient and accountable court system, which respects the dignity of all it serves, will be supported and will meet the needs of the people.

New Hampshire is uniquely positioned to achieve this goal. It has been blessed with a history of outstanding judges and court administration.

It is staffed by well-trained and committed professionals who serve New Hampshire by bringing justice to the public. The court system has met the challenges and needs of generations of citizens, and its leaders are anticipating the demands of our future. It is a difficult and diverse job to provide for the wide array of legal needs coming to our courts.

Former Chief Justice Frank Kenison reminded us years ago of the seriousness of the mission and the nature of the constituency:

[T]he Supreme Court and the Judiciary of this State will continue to maintain and guard its house of justice for the humble as well as the powerful, for the poor as well as the rich, for the minority as well as the majority, and for the unpopular as well as the popular.'

1. New Hampshire House Journal, February 18, 1975 at 256-257.

While the mission and acceptance of its obligations continue without dilution or fatigue, it is clear that we stand at a critical place. The nature and pace of change we will experience during the next five years and the impact that change will have on the delivery of justice to the people will be unprecedented in our history. New Hampshire joins other states in experiencing a dramatic increase in the diversity of its population and the complexity of the family and personal legal issues they bring to the courts. There are striking changes in family composition, particularly in the growth of families headed by a single parent. The racial and ethnic composition of the state is changing, particularly in our urban areas. The aging of our population will continue and create new emphasis on legal issues about caring for that population. These trends also affect the court's workforce and its ability to attract and retain highly talented court staff and administrators.

While our notions of justice and fairness may not change, the mechanisms, speed of management, and the expectations of those receiving services through the court system are changing. All of us encounter daily changes in technology and information. Our means and manner of communicating have been revolutionized in the electronic "E- World." Business and commercial life are based on a digital reality. It is essential that those institutions handling our most critical communications and interactions - our courts - are up to speed with technology and the modem essential means of transferring information.

Similarly, those served by the social, political, and legal systems all demand high levels of prompt, quality service. We are immersed in a universe that has set increasingly high expectations for immediate, top quality service. This is a good thing - but it raises the bar for all our governmental agencies and our courts to provide excellent "customer service.'" It will be essential that the court system expand its training of judicial officers and staff and provide faster, more responsive service of consistent, excellent quality.

A critical challenge for the court system will be to manage the revolutionary developments and advances in science, medicine, and engineering. Not only will electronic information and its transmission dominate our systems and operations, but legal issues beyond our historic imagination will confront us. The application of DNA testing, cloning, alterations or creation of cellular materials, and a constant stream of inventions, new products, and systems will test the flexibility and viability of our body of law. The increased capacity of our data collecting and monitoring information systems will clash with prior notions of personal privacy, criminal procedure, and the proper role of government. These issues will escalate and be resolved in our courtrooms - requiring levels of understanding and management beyond those required to deal with prior innovations.

Our Committee is optimistic about the ability of our courts to meet these demands. Our membership was drawn from judges, administrators, officials, and practitioners who approached these issues with a wide range of perspectives. We engaged in a focused examination by those extensively familiar with the system and who will be responsible for confronting these challenges. In addition, we had the input of a large number of attorneys and court personnel through a survey process. Our observations and recommendations should be seen as a prioritized memorandum of probable challenges and critical initiatives.

The Committee recognized that excellence in our courts is not simply a matter of handling cases fast or efficiently. New Hampshire courts enjoy a long and strong tradition of practicability, collegiality, and courtesy. The enhancement of operations to meet future challenges should not result in a rigid, inflexible system concerned only with statistical measures of performance.

In discussions with the members of the Supreme Court, it was recognized that the implementation of these proposals should now be presented to and examined by a broader constituency of public leaders. At its best, our report will serve to identify issues with strong recommendations for action by members of the court and legal community and set the stage for examination by a broad cross-section of public officials and citizens. In examining the future needs and operations of our courts, we did not require our ideas or recommendations to come to the discussion table with funding in place. In that sense we suspended our concerns regarding the availability of resources to pay for the systems necessary to serve the public. While these ideas and proposals are presented without funding in place, they now deserve to be examined for implementation in the light of those budgetary realities. Excellence in our courts is essential to our citizens, and only with broad understanding and support by New Hampshire's leaders and citizens will New Hampshire have a court system as good as our vision of it.

We also recognize that many of the initiatives and recommendations we suggest are already employed by certain courts or court staff. In calling for enhanced service to users of the system we do not suggest system-wide failures of those services. We encourage the expansion of best practices on a consistent basis and the provision of additional resources and oversight to bring top quality practices and performance to all cases and litigants coming into our courts.

In performing our work, the Committee agreed to divide its members into four subcommittees, each targeted on a major area or category of court system performance. These subcommittees met regularly and often drew upon resources and ideas of persons outside the Committee membership. The Committee is very grateful to all those who assisted in this effort. Each subcommittee reported at meetings of the full Committee to assure that the views and thoughts of the subcommittee were shared and examined by the full Committee.

The materials that follow set forth an Executive Summary of the recommendations of our Committee. (Visit http://www.courts.state.nh.us/press/felmlyreportweb.pdf for the full report in PDF form, including a detailed presentation of the various initiatives, studies, and changes that are proposed.)

The future for which we are preparing is here and all of the proposals we offer are time sensitive. While precise prioritization of these recommendations is difficult, within each area of our report the specific recommendations are set forth in the order of priority that the Committee determined.

Daniel Webster told us that "Justice is the ligament which holds civilized beings and civilized nations together:' Our courts are the place where that ligament is stretched, exercised, and strengthened. The foundation and traditions of New Hampshire's court system are strong, but new pressures, risks, and demands now confront us, literally at light speed. To meet these demands, New Hampshire's people must understand, and support, its court system and that system must change and improve to develop and justify that support. The Committee hopes this report will identify the areas upon which to focus our efforts; its members welcome the opportunity to assist in meeting these challenges.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The New Hampshire Supreme Court Committee on Justice System Needs and Priorities identified critical areas within the state court system that will impact the delivery of justice to the public during the next five years. Based on its findings, the committee members unanimously endorse the following recommendations and present them to the Chief Justice and the members of the Supreme Court for their consideration.

  1. Enhancing And Measuring Court Performance - Quality Assurance And Public Confidence
    • Improve accessibility through procedural changes, training initiatives, and enhanced methods of communication.
    • Adopt specific case processing time standards and monitor compliance to enhance control of scheduling and processing of individual cases so that final disposition is timely and fair.
    • Reinforce core criteria of equality, fairness, and integrity in all court system decisions and actions. Specific emphasis should be given to advancing uniformity, consistency of protocols, and court oversight of the litigation process.
    • Maintain independence and accountability of the justice system, while promoting continuity and working relationships with other components of state and local government.
    • Build public confidence and trust in the courts by expanding communications about the justice system; enhance judicial evaluation procedures; provide appropriate responses to erroneous information relating to the justice system.

  2. Responding To The Needs Of The Public - Making Justice Affordable, Efficient, And Respectful
    • Enhance availability of legal representation for citizens who do not have adequate resources to retain counsel; support efforts to secure adequate funding for indigent litigants. Alternative models for delivery of legal services should be explored including modifications of ethical rules to permit "unbundled" legal services, expansion of incentives and responsibilities of New Hampshire lawyers to provide pro bono services, and development of panels of specially trained lawyers to handle particular types of cases.
    • Provide expanded alternative dispute resolution (ADR) opportunities and systems in all of New Hampshire's courts and hire a professional coordinator for such services.
    • Continue to enhance efficiency and promptness of operations.
    • Locate courthouses geographically to provide easily accessible public service; revise forms and system documents to make them more easily understood and uniform from court to court; improve interpretation services for non-English system users; enable users to interact with the system by computer.
    • Continue and expand efforts to promote public education programs and interaction with the public so that input necessary to improve the system can be obtained and reviewed.
    • Reflect throughout the courthouse environment, including court staff actions, a system-wide ethic based on respect, courtesy, and the dignity of all participants; improve systems to provide information and respond to questions of court visitors; provide a visual environment in courthouse facilities consistent with the cultural diversity of our state.
    • Expand training, education, and monitoring of judicial officers and court system staff; expand use of "bench books" and protocols to encourage consistency; improve systems to recognize and reward the excellence of the court system staff; expand performance evaluations and assessment of court system procedures.
    • Explore innovative and flexible proposals to deliver justice to the public in a rapidly changing world.

  3. Improving The Operations Of Our Courts - Court Facilities, Services, And Personnel
    • All courts within the New Hampshire judiciary should continue to move to staffing by full-time judicial officers.
    • •Update the job description of court personnel at each New Hampshire court.
    • Expand the use of case managers to assist parties in dealing with court procedures.
    • Review the results of the state's problem-solving courts and consider their efficacy and potential for further expansion, with the objective to reduce recidivism, keep non-violent offenders out of prisons, and hold offenders accountable for their conduct and their treatment.
    • Enhance the efficiency and quality of court reporting, especially through the use of digital recording and increased use of trained court monitors.
    • Expand training and education of court staff to include training in customer service; encourage cross-training of the court staff in the varying responsibilities within the clerk's office; study the use of "floating" court staff to meet unusual demands at court sites around the state.
    • Enhance the availability, quality, and efficiency of language interpretation in all New Hampshire courts.
    • Develop and utilize a realistic and reliable weighted caseload system as a management standard in budgeting and performance assessment.
    • Prioritize convenience to the public and users of the facilities and reflect ongoing changes in demographics in citing or locating new court facilities; encourage and provide for interaction and cooperation among various New Hampshire courts.

  4. Advancing Access To Court Information Through Technology - Innovations That Improve The Administration Of Justice
    • Deploy updated case management system ("CMS") for all New Hampshire courts allowing for a system-wide database and uninterrupted exchange of information among system users.
    • Launch business process enhancement (BPE).
    • Examine issues of public access and privacy and develop recommendations concerning those issues.
    • Continue communication with a broad group of constituencies to maximize the success of technology development and utilization.
    • Establish a CMS working group to assist in implementation and development issues.
    • Inform the Legislature about the financial impact associated with court technology and enlist legislative support for funding needs and staff and technological costs (where not offset by savings) in each budget cycle.
    • Make available to the public "self-help" computer terminals at each court site as the CMS is implemented.
    • Begin electronic notification ("e-noticing") of hearings and court orders simultaneously with implementation of the CMS at each court site to assist the staff, bar and self-represented litigants.
    • Use a centralized mailing system to relieve staff from the effort involved in paper-noticing to those parties, jurors, etc. for whom e-noticing is not available.

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