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Bar News - October 19, 2007

NH Judges to Discuss Pro Se Litigants



On Oct. 19, the NH judicial branch is conducting an all-day workshop for judges and masters on how judges and the courts can meet the challenge presented by pro se litigants.  NH Supreme Court Associate Justice James E. Duggan, who recently chaired a Court Task Force on Unrepresented Litigants, said the group’s recommendations included the development of protocols for judges and court staff in their interactions with pro se litigants. Duggan acknowledged that courts in NH take a variety of different approaches in dealing with pro se litigants and said that the Oct. 19 conference is not designed to immediately produce protocols or new rules, but to inform and educate judges about what their colleagues both in the state and elsewhere are doing.


“Before you can have protocols, you have to look at the best practices and have a conversation among judges about what works and what doesn’t,” Duggan said.  “A number of lawyers have expressed concerns about how judges handle pro se litigants – some say there are judges who give pro se litigants too much leeway.”


“One of our hopes for an outcome of this conference is that it will stimulate judges to go back and have conversations with their staff about the handling of pro se litigants so that everyone is on the same wavelength,” said Duggan.


The all-day program, funded largely through a grant from the State Justice Institute, a national organization that provides help to state courts, is for all masters and judges in the system and is the first system-wide training event in several years, said Barbara Sweet, director of Judicial Branch Education. More than 100 judges and marital masters are already signed up to attend.


“We need to educate ourselves about what is going on around the country,” Duggan said. The conference features two outside speakers, the Hon. Rebecca A. Albrecht, who recently retired from the Arizona Superior Court; and Russell Engler, a law professor and clinical programs director at New England School of Law. Albrecht served as a trial judge, a juvenile court judge and practitioner in Maricopa County, an area that has been noted for its innovative approaches to assisting pro se litigants. A former president of the Maricopa County Bar Association, she serves on the Arizona State Bar’s Continuing Legal Education Committee and is Executive Director of the Arizona College of Trial Advocacy. She also has served as a faculty member for a number of ABA CLE programs.


Engler has written and lectured on the changing role of judges, mediators, and clerks in coping with a rising tide of self-represented litigants.  His publications include: Normalcy After 9/11: Public Service as the Crisis Fades, 31 Fordham Urb. L.J. 983 (2004); The MacCrate Report Turns 10: Assessing Its Impact and Identifying Gaps We Should Seek to Narrow, 8 Clin. L. Rev. 109 (2001); And Justice for All-Including the Unrepresented Poor: Revisiting the Roles of the Judges, Mediators and Clerks, 67 Fordham L. Rev. 1987 (1999); and Out of Sight and Out of Line: The Need for Regulation of Lawyers’ Negotiations with Unrepresented Poor Persons, 85 Cal. L. Rev. 79 (1997).  He has two articles forthcoming on Civil Gideon, and one on judicial ethics in cases involving unrepresented litigants.


Duggan said the conversation of the judges also will be facilitated by presentation of the results of questionnaires on pro se issues that were distributed earlier to the attendees.


Sweet said that increased funding from the legislature is enabling the court to plan for more educational programming for judges and other court staff. She said the judicial branch plans to hold a system-wide conference each year, as well as conduct conferences for specific levels of courts as well. There is additional money for judges to attend national conferences, she said. “Encouraging judges and others to go to conferences with national themes allows us to stay on top of all developments in legal thought, case processing, strategies for cost recovery, etc.,” she said, citing innovations brought to NH, such as ADR programs, the Academy diversion program, drug courts, and other programs.


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