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Bar News - December 19, 2008


Court Service Centers: They Help Speed the Process

By:

At the open house for the Probate Court service centers: left to right: Kimberly Bonenfant, Marty Wagner, Gina Rogers, Administrative Judge David D. King, Cindy Maggiacomo and Irene Ray.

The New Hampshire courts, in an attempt to be of greater assistance to the public—including the many clients who now go to court pro se—have established court service centers.

A service center provides a "live" person to listen, to answer questions, to help fill out forms and to give guidance through what to many people is the bewildering maze of the court system. Not all counties have service centers yet, but it‘s the goal of the courts to have them throughout the state eventually.

The Superior Court Service Centers

"Attorneys use these computers, too," said Kearston Crutchfield, speaking of the public-access computers at the Strafford County Superior Court Service Center in Dover. Clients and attorneys alike can print the downloadable forms often needed to prepare their cases. "Providing that service saves time for everyone," said Crutchfield.

She is the case manager for the service center in Dover and says that the center has helped immensely in preparing clients for their appearances in court and has been of great assistance in scheduling the dockets.

"We can handle the intake procedures and have clients fill out their financial affidavits," said Crutchfield. Some things can be entirely done by the service center. "For instance, I can help a client fill out a restraining order—and even file it on the spot," Crutchfield said. "Saves a lot of time for both attorneys and clients—and saving time helps move along those crowded dockets."

In addition to the Strafford County service center in Dover, the Superior Court has three other service centers: the Rockingham Superior Court Service Center in Brentwood, the Hillsborough So. center in Nashua and the Hillsborough No. center in Manchester.

"All those sites are up and running and we are in the process of compiling statistics for each site," continued Crutchfield. Marg Malfitan is the case manager for the Brentwood site, Paulette Boyer is case manager for Nashua and Janet L. Cyr is the case manager for the Manchester center. The Superior Court case managers meet bi-monthly to make sure that services being provided are the same at all sites.

About 70 percent of the people that Crutchfield sees are walk-ins. She takes many phone calls, too, although about half of the calls are from people she has already helped in person and only about 15 percent are first-time callers. She also gets a few e-mail inquiries.

"Most of the people I see or speak with are seeking assistance with civil or equity matters, such as restraining orders, stalking petitions, mechanics liens, writs of summons, etc."

Crutchfield covers Strafford County in particular, but she emphasizes that any of the case managers can (and do) travel to other sites to work on new forms or pamphlets. "In addition, we help anyone who comes through the door, whether he or she is from our county or not."

Listening is perhaps the most important part of the job, said Crutchfield. "I give them time to talk….Most people who come to court are not there because they want to be. Something significant and most times unpleasant has happened and now they find themselves at court. I have found that having someone who takes the time to listen and then provide useful information helps people feel good about their court experience."

"As for the attorneys—they have access to all our services to assist them in their work—use of the computers, the FAX machine, our printable forms—whatever."

An Attorney Volunteer Program has been started through the service center in Strafford County. "Several attorneys have volunteered to meet with pro se litigants who have legal questions that the service center case manager is not able to answer" said Crutchfield. "It’s a wonderful service they’re providing for the people of Strafford County."

The Probate Court Centers

For the probate courts, there are presently four service centers: Rockingham and Hillsborough counties, Coos and Grafton counties.

"We made a list of all the procedures that come through the probate court and developed a checklist for all types of cases," said Gina Rogers, who heads the service center in Rockingham County Probate Court. "These are now on-line and have proved to be of great help not only to clients, but also to attorneys."

The downloadable forms and checklists can be found at www.courts.state.nh.us/probate. Click service center and you will find many helps on the web page.

Rogers spends four days a week at the Rockingham center and one day a week at the Hillsborough center. "Because Hillsborough County has a downtown office in Manchester, we get more walk-ins there," she said. "The heaviest "traffic" in Rockingham comes from phone calls and e-mail inquiries."

On Sept. 14 of 2007, the first service center (Rockingham) had its formal opening, although it had been operating informally since June of 2007. "Naturally, I can’t give legal advice," said Rogers, "but I can tell callers about LawLine, where they can get free legal advice—and I can send them pamphlets, like Selecting, Hiring and Working with a Lawyer or Administering an Estate, put out by the Bar Association."

"I can also answer some of the questions we get from nursing homes about guardianships," Rogers said.

The service centers also hold Brown Bag Lunch seminars to inform lawyers about the ways in which the centers can help them. The downloadable forms and the checklists have been especially helpful.

Rogers herself can often help a client with simple probate matters, such as what to do when a parent dies and the client doesn’t know how to proceed. Often it’s just a matter of knowing what form to file—and maybe getting a little help filling it out.

"And those are things we can do," said Rogers.

Next month in part two of this article, the family and district court service centers will be spotlighted.

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