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Bar News - August 10, 2007


Merrimack County Family Division Will Open at Four Locations on Sept. 4

           

 
The Concord District Court Building on Clinton Street will house the Concord site of the Merrimack County Family Division.

Family Division and District Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly announces the Sept. 4 opening of the Merrimack County Family Division (MCFD) at four district court locations: Concord, Franklin, Henniker and Hooksett. Merrimack is the fourth county where family division sites have opened since legislation approving statewide expansion passed in 2005. Seven out of 10 counties now have family court locations.

           

“We have learned valuable lessons during each of our past family division openings,” Judge Kelly said. “Each county brings unique challenges with facilities, staff, community involvement, judicial assignments, and available preparation time.  Merrimack County is progressing smoothly in each of these areas,” he added.

 

Judges, Marital Masters, Hearing Officer, and Court Staff

           

Judge Kelly has named Judge Susan B. Carbon as Supervisory Judge for Merrimack County Family Division. Judge Carbon has been a member of the Family Division since its inception in 1996 and brings a wealth of experience in every type of family case.   Each family division location will be served by a family division judge, a child support hearing officer, and in all but one location, a family division marital master.

           

With the Merrimack opening, Marital Master Deborah Kane Rein will join the Family Division.  Marital Master Nancy Geiger will also join the Family Division, but will continue for the time being to split her time between the Family Division and the Superior Court.  The Child Support Hearing Officer for MCFD will be attorney Lauren Thorn, a longtime member of the Judicial Branch. (See Box on this page for locations of judges, masters and child support hearing officers.)

           

MCFD staff will include a number of familiar faces as well as some new additions to the court family.  One familiar face for many area practitioners will be the MCFD Regional Clerk, LoriAnne Dionne.  LoriAnne has been with the Family Division for many years, building and sharing her expertise in Grafton County, then Carroll County, and most recently in Belknap County. Other familiar faces will be the Merrimack County Superior Court Marital Department staff, as well as the area District Court juvenile case specialists.  A notable departure from the county will be Kathy McDonald, Deputy Clerk of the Merrimack County Superior Court marital department.  (See box page 15 for tribute to Kathy by M. Rein) 

           

As noted by Judge Kelly, “The Family Division inherits a strong marital department due, in large part, to the hard work of Kathy McDonald and her staff.  Although we, in Family Division, regret Kathy has elected to continue her career in Superior Court, we wish her well as she embarks on her new Superior Court assignments.”  (For a list of Judicial Officers and Clerks see box on page 15).

 

Jurisdiction

           

Beginning on September 4, all new Merrimack County family cases (i.e., divorce, separation, parenting, abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquencies and CHINS, termination of parental rights, domestic violence, minor guardianships, and DCYF-related adoption) will be filed in Merrimack County Family Division. 

           

Jurisdiction of each location is established by RSA 490-D:4.  In addition to Merrimack County cases, MCFD will also have jurisdiction over a number of Hillsborough County and Belknap County towns. The Henniker Family Division will include the following towns from Hillsborough County: Antrim, Bennington, Deering, Hillsborough, and Windsor. The Franklin Family Division will include the Belknap County towns of Tilton and Sanbornton.  (See box page 15 of each MCFD location.)

 

Case Transfer

           

The case transfer process from the original court to the new Family Division is complicated and varies depending on the case type and the original court.  The Family Division will assume jurisdiction of all Merrimack County divorce, parenting, legal separation and related cases from Merrimack Superior Court.  Therefore, all such cases, regardless of where they are along the legal process continuum will be transferred to one of the four new Family Division locations.

           

The cases from Hillsborough North Superior Court will not generally be transferred if they are in process.  Instead, certain new petitions, or matters that return to court for post-decree orders, will transfer to the Henniker Family Division.  All juvenile and domestic violence cases which are in process will also transfer to the respective new family division location.  All pending cases of abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency and CHINS are currently being scheduled – or rescheduled – in one of the four MCFD locations for hearings on or after September 4.

           

Cases that emanate from the probate courts will be transferred to the respective family division if the majority of the case has not yet been heard in the probate court, or if justice otherwise requires. The MCFD location in which hearings after September 4 will take place is determined according to the jurisdictional mandate of RSA 490-D:4 (see Jurisdiction box for details).  Parties and counsel have already begun receiving hearing notices for MCFD in existing cases and newly filed cases with initial hearings on or after September 4. 

 

Odyssey—Computerized Case Management from Day One

           

In addition to the usual start-up tasks of acquiring and setting up court rooms and clerk’s offices, procuring furniture and equipment, hiring and transferring staff, reaching out to stakeholders, rescheduling cases, transferring files, etc., Merrimack County Family Division has the distinction of being the first NH Family Division site to open simultaneously with the roll out of the court system’s new computerized case management system – Odyssey. This means that from day one, MCFD will enter cases into the Odyssey system, which provides greatly improved case tracking and data collection abilities as well as a simplified system for docketing pleadings and issuing court notices.  Transferring staff and new Family Division staff are currently being trained in Odyssey so that they will be familiar with the new system on opening day – which is good news for staff and for the public.

             
The Odyssey system has already been successfully implemented in several NH Family Division locations – Plymouth, Salem, Portsmouth, Lebanon, Littleton, and Haverhill – and has proven to streamline the process for docketing and the issuance of orders and notices. According to Family Division Administrator Gina Apicelli, “Opening a new court in a brand-new computer system will be an initial challenge to our staff but within a short time this will become routine, as it has in all other locations.  The Administrative Office of the Courts has provided excellent training and technical support to clerks and staff in all of the Odyssey courts, so a smooth roll-out in MCFD is fully anticipated – along with a few predictable preliminary glitches which will be quickly resolved.”

 

Child Support Referee Project

          
In 2005, in an effort to expedite the processing of child support matters, the Family Division launched a Child Support Referee Project in Rockingham County.  Since that time, hundreds of child support cases have been heard on a fast track by a Child Support Referee/Hearing Officer. The hearing officer (sometimes called a Referee) is a lawyer appointed by the Family Division Administrative Judge, pursuant to RSA 490-D:1.   Hearing officers are authorized to conduct hearings and submit recommendations for orders on issues of paternity establishment, child support, medical support, and tax exemptions, as well as registrations of court orders from other states. 

           
Setting the child support matter before a hearing officer typically results in a shorter waiting time for a hearing date and faster processing of the case once it has been heard.   The Child Support Hearing Officer for Merrimack County Family Division is Lauren Thorn, who also hears cases in Sullivan, Belknap and Grafton Counties.

           
For those who have not participated in or observed a hearing before a Child Support Hearing Officer, they will find that the hearing is a little less formal.   The hearing officer does not sit on the bench the way a Judge or Marital Master does.  However, just as when a Marital Master hears a case, all recommendations must be reviewed and approved by a judge before they become orders of the court.

 

Differences in Process to Anticipate

           

For parties and counsel who have not yet appeared in a family division court, there are a number of court processes which will be new to them: 

 

  • First Appearance:

           

Instead of a Temporary Hearing, First Appearance is the usually the first hearing scheduled in the Family Division after filing a parenting petition or a petition for divorce by parties with children.  First Appearance is scheduled within two to four weeks the return of service.  At First Appearance, parties are instructed by a Family Division Judge or Marital Master regarding the importance of focusing on the needs of their children during the divorce or separation process.  An overview of the steps in the court process is provided with the goal of minimizing anxiety about the process and to empower parents with information about the process so that they are better able to focus their energy on the needs of their children during this difficult time.

 

  • Case Managers:

           

At First Appearance pro se parents who have reached a full agreement as to all issues in their case are scheduled for case management services.  The case manager meets with the parties to assist them in completing the necessary documents for their particular circumstances. Parents who have not yet agreed on all issues prior to First Appearance are typically scheduled for mediation soon after First Appearance, except in cases in which mediation would be inappropriate.  Sometimes, even after First Appearance and in conjunction with or in advance of mediation, parties still need a temporary hearing before a judge or marital master.  In these cases, a motion stating the reasons for the hearing must be filed.  The court, in its discretion, can order a temporary hearing be scheduled if it appears to be a particularly complex case with unique issues to resolve.

 

  • Mediation:          

Mediation is a critically important tool in the Family Division approach to divorce and parenting petitions.  Family Division seeks to involve both parents in the important decision making that is required when families separate or divorce.  Pursuant to RSA 461-A:7, rather than requiring a judge to decide the details of parenting time, parents are encouraged – and are frequently ordered – to attend mediation early in their case so that they can decide together the arrangements that will be in the best interest of their children.  This collaborative approach to problem solving allows both parents to be part of the solution and frequently diminishes the adversarial nature of the proceedings.  Mediators appointed in Family Division cases must be certified to mediate family cases by the NH Mediation Board pursuant to RSA 328-C and thereafter obtain a mediation contract with the judicial branch.

 

In Conclusion

           

Prior to opening the four MCFD locations, the expansion team has provided information to as many stakeholders as possible, and input has been solicited to help anticipate and obviate any potential difficulties as these new courts open.  While it is impossible to plan for every circumstance, every effort has been made to ensure a smooth transition from the existing courts, to the new Family Division locations.  The Family Division Administrative Office welcomes comments and questions as the Family Division continues to expand statewide.

 

More information about Family Division can be found at the Judicial Branch Web site, www.courts.state.nh.us.

 

 

Merrimack County Family Division

Hours of all locations:  8am – 4pm

 

Concord Family Division

32 Clinton Street

Concord, NH 03302

 

Supervisory Judge: 
Hon. Susan B. Carbon

Judge:  Hon. Susan B. Carbon

Marital Master:  Deborah K. Rein

Child Support Hearing Officer: 
Lauren V. Thorn

Regional Clerk:  LoriAnne Dionne

Deputy Clerk:  Diane Stearns

Case Manager:  Marcey Joy

Phone:  271-0630

 

Henniker Family Division

41 Liberty Hill Road, Building #2

Henniker, NH 03242

 

Supervisory Judge:  Hon. Susan B. Carbon 

Judge:  Hon. Brackett L. Scheffy

Child Support Hearing Officer:  Lauren V. Thorn

Regional Clerk:  LoriAnne Dionne

Deputy Clerk:  Marcia Chin-Colby

Case Manager: Michelle Mercer

Phone: 428-3214

 

Franklin Family Division

7 Hancock Terrace

Franklin, NH 03235

 

Supervisory Judge: Hon. Susan B. Carbon 

Judge:  Hon. Edward M. Gordon

Marital Master:  Nancy J. Geiger

Child Support Hearing Officer: 
Lauren V. Thorn

Regional Clerk:  LoriAnne Dionne

Deputy Clerk: Margaret Paveglio

Case Manager: Michelle Mercer

Phone: 934-3290

 

Hooksett Family Division

101 Merrimack Street

PO BOX 16387

Hooksett, NH 03106

 

Supervisory Judge:  Hon. Susan B. Carbon

Judge:  Brackett J. Scheffy

Marital Master:  Nancy J. Geiger

Child Support Hearing Officer:  Lauren V. Thorn

Regional Clerk:  LoriAnne Dionne

Deputy Clerk: Katherine Corbett

Case Manager: Michelle Mercer

Phone: 485-9901

 

 

MCFD Jurisdiction

Pursuant to RSA 490-D:4 the following courts will assume jurisdiction of family division case types on September 4, 2007 with the opening of Merrimack County Family Division - with the exception of matters arising in municipalities located within the New London district (towns of New London, Newbury, Sutton and Wilmot) which shall be heard in the Newport District Court in Sullivan County.

 

Concord Family Division

Bow, Canterbury, Chichester, Concord, Contoocook, Dunbarton, Epsom, Hopkinton, Loudon, Penacook and Pittsfield.

 

Franklin Family Division

Andover, Boscawen, Danbury, Franklin , Hill, Northfield, Salisbury, Sanbornton, Tilton and Webster.

 

Henniker-Hillsboro Family Division

Bradford, Henniker, Warner, Antrim, Bennington, Deering, Hillsborough and Windsor.

 

Hooksett Family Division

Allenstown, Hooksett and Pembroke.

 

 

Kathy McDonald, Merrimack County Superior Court Clerk, Moves On         

 

By Master Deborah Kane Rein

 

After ten years of extraordinary service to Merrimack County, Deputy Clerk Kathy McDonald will be focusing her abundant energy and dedication to public service in her next Superior Court assignment.  Members of the Merrimack County Bar and the public will remember Clerk McDonald as a whirlwind in the lobby of the Merrimack County Courthouse, collecting paperwork, assisting pro se litigants with their pleadings, making suggestions to counsel for appropriate resolutions, and marshalling cases into the courtroom.  Her knowledge of family law and domestic relations procedures has made her a popular guru for lawyers – whether unseasoned or just confused – and her no-nonsense but respectful approach has endeared her to many a pro se litigant as well.  She has been able to make Merrimack County Superior Court appropriately hospitable to those who must utilize its services, but without sacrificing fairness, quality, and professionalism, and while maintaining a high level of energy, dignity, and humor.  She will undoubtedly bring the same extraordinary public service to her next Superior Court assignment.

           

On behalf of those who have worked with Kathy for the last decade, I must say that, while we will all miss her professionalism and  knowledge of law and procedure,  it will be her colorful language, finely tuned sense of humor, and compassion that I will miss the most – on some difficult days, it was those qualities that kept me and the rest of the court staff going.  Her new colleagues will be charmed and energized by her unique personality, and the entire staff of the Merrimack County Family Division wishes her only the best in her new assignment.

 

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