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Bar News - July 7, 2006


Citizens Commission Offers Ideas for Improvements to Courts

By:


The NH Citizens Commission on the State Courts’ final report, issued late last month, proposes 30 recommendations, some of them requiring considerable effort or cost, or a major change in mindset, while others relate to details of operation or policy.

           

The Citizens Commission, with a membership of approximately 100 people (about two-thirds were non-lawyers), was appointed by the Supreme Court in April 2005 and given the mission of independently examining the state courts and making recommendations on how the system could be improved.

           

 Citizens Commission for State Courts

Chief Justice John Broderick, left, lauds the work of the 100-plus member Citizens Commission for State Courts. He is pictured with co-chairs Will Abbott and Katharine Eneguess at the presentation of the Commission’s report last month.

To develop its recommendations, the commission, co-chaired by Will Abbott, vice president for policy and land management at The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and Katharine Eneguess, president of the NH Technical College in Berlin, reviewed a stack of recent reports produced by court system task forces, held more than a dozen hearings, conducted a public opinion poll, and met twice in Representatives’ Hall in March to vote. The Commission’s operation was funded with grants from the NH Bar Foundation and the NH Charitable Fund.

           






In the cover letter to the report, Abbott and Eneguess underlined the importance of pushing the court system toward a more customer-oriented approach: “A critical ingredient of the future success of the New Hampshire judiciary will be the retention of public trust and confidence in the court system itself. If the judiciary fails to provide 21st century services to a 21st century citizenry, we believe that, public trust and confidence in the integrity of the judicial branch and its decisions will erode. We make our recommendations for change and progress with that in mind.”

           

Improved “customer service,” a key theme in the Commission’s findings, was expressed in ideas both big and small:

           

“Initial entry into New Hampshire’s courthouses is a matter of mystery to many,” opined the Commission, which recommended that each court “should be staffed with a clearly identified greeter charged with meeting the basic informational needs of the public” and that signage be improved. Other measures include a “toll-free telephone helpline” to provide guidance through the court process, family law case managers for each court, and improved scheduling, including “non-traditional” hours for court sessions and the elimination of inefficient “cattle-call” scheduling of multiple matters at the same hour.

           

The Commission also recommended that the courts better accommodate individuals with disabilities; provide more public rooms for litigants to confer on pleas or settlements or to complete paperwork; and provide separate waiting areas for litigants with children.

           

Accelerated deployment of information technology, to process cases and to provide information to litigants, was also advocated by the task force – to speed the processing of cases and reduce costs, provide more information to litigants, and improve scheduling by reducing the potential for scheduling conflicts.

           

Specific recommendations also were made regarding the handling of family matters in the courts, sentencing, and public outreach.

           

Other recommendations include:

 

  • Convert the judiciary to 100 percent full-time judges, starting with new judicial appointments.
  • Increase investment in training for staff and judiciary; create incentives in compensation structure for desired outcomes; evaluate and enhance staff morale.
  • Re-orient the management philosophy of the judicial branch to be one in which outcomes govern process. “Today, the primary focus of judicial branch management is process, the establishment of rules that determine how every legal circumstance faced by a litigant is to be handled…The judicial branch will be best served by placing an emphasis on outcomes that define the long-term success of the judicial branch, while fully recognizing that rules are necessary for the administration of justice in individual cases.”
  • Examine the expansion of legal representation to civil litigants unable to afford counsel and the implementation of a “civil Gideon.” “The concept of a ‘civil Gideon’ [referring to the US Supreme Court case backing the right to counsel for defendants facing imprisonment] extends the premise of a right to counsel to certain limited and specific non-criminal cases in which essential rights are at stake.”
  • Full funding of legal services staffing for traditional legal services. The Commission praised the current network of civil legal services providers as “excellent” but said they are “woefully overburdened. By some estimates, only 20 percent of the low-income people who need legal services are receiving them.”
  • Further education and assistance for pro se litigants. Among the initiatives mentioned were to have more case managers to inform pro se litigants about potential options, such as legal services providers or alternative dispute resolution, or to provide procedural guidance; to expand the use of non-lawyer professionals to provide law-related services; and to provide more information about the “unbundled” legal services—or limited-scope representation.
  • Increase the small-claims jurisdiction amount from $5,000 to $10,000 to reflect economic changes.
  • Enhance resources devoted to alternative dispute resolution in all of the courts, and enhance the recognition, recruitment and training of current volunteer mediators and consider the use of paid mediators.
  • “Critically review” use by the courts of guardians ad litem, in “light of the expansion of the Family Division and its increased use of alternative dispute resolution.” The Commission also pointed to the need for continued improvement in the training and oversight of GALs.
  • Establish a standing committee of the judicial branch for improvements in sentencing in the state courts. The Commission also advocated that pre-trial diversion programs and alternatives to prison be “uniformly available” throughout the state.
  • Ensure that there are adequate numbers of probate and parole officers, and that judges be trained to deal with offenders with substance abuse issues.
  • Provide adequate capacity in sex offender treatment programs so that all offenders can complete their programs during their prescribed sentences.
  • Expand the use of the “problem-solving justice model” in dealing with individuals with mental health issues, certain drug offenders, and those with family-related legal problems.
  • Strive to ensure that women inmates in New Hampshire prisons receive “comparable” services and are housed in facilities comparable to those that house male offenders.
  • Initiate a “vigorous educational outreach campaign” to address the lack of broad understanding of the state courts, as demonstrated by the public opinion survey conducted last fall on behalf of the commission. The survey reported that nearly two-thirds of the population is unfamiliar with how the court system worked.

 

A minority report, signed by 12 commissioners and originally submitted as a recommendation of a commission sub-committee on public access, called for creation of an independent position, a “Citizens’ Advocate,” modeled after the Consumer Advocate that represents ratepayers before the Public Utilities Commission.

           

“The Citizens’ Advocate would look at the justice system through the eyes of average people, and work to assure that the system meets the legal needs of average people,” the minority report said, and added that the advocate could be assisted by an advisory board.

           

In the commission’s cover letter addressed to the NH Supreme Court, co-chairs Abbott and Eneguess pledged to advocate for the recommendations contained in their 46-page report. “Many of the recommendations of this commission will require the collaboration of all three branches of state government. While our founders intended a certain degree of tension among the branches as a check on absolute power, they also intended the three branches to work collaboratively on behalf of the people. The commissioners who assembled this report are ready to work collaboratively with you and your colleagues in the judicial branch, as well as with the executive and legislative branches, to make these recommendations the subject of thorough discussion and constructive change.”

           

The full text of the Citizens Commission report can be found at http://www.nhcitcourts.org/ and www.courts.state.nh.us.

 

 

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