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Bar News - October 16, 2009

Manchester Family Division to Open November 12

The new Manchester Family Division will be located at the Manchester District Court on Amherst Street in Manchester.
Family Division and District Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly has announced the November 12, 2009 opening of the Manchester Family Division (MFD). Manchester is the second Family Division location in northern Hillsborough County; Goffstown Family Division opened in January 2009. Hillsborough County is the sixth county in which Family Division sites have opened since legislation approving statewide expansion was enacted in 2005.

The Manchester Family Division will be located on the entrance level of the Manchester District Court building at 35 Amherst Street. The lobby and the security screening area will remain essentially as they are now.

After passing through security, those wishing to access the Family Division will proceed to the right. There, in a section of the building that previously held hundreds of boxes of closed court files, the Family Division will be situated and will include a lobby, a public counter, two courtrooms, several mediation and conference rooms, and the clerk’s office and staff work area. The Family Division will also use the juvenile courtroom upstairs as well as an additional courtroom as needed.

Judges, Marital Masters, Hearing Officer, and Court Staff

Manchester Family Division will be served by two Family Division judges, two full-time Family Division Marital Masters and a part-time child support hearing officer.

Judge John Emery, currently a special justice at the Manchester District Court, will join the Family Division and Marital Master Nancy Geiger will transfer from the Hooksett and Franklin Family Divisions. Dana Zucker, currently the clerk of Belknap County Superior Court, will become the child support hearing officer. There will also be another judge and marital master assigned to the new division.

The Manchester Family Division management team and staff will include a number of familiar faces. Sherry Bisson, recently named clerk for the Manchester Family Division, has worked for the judicial branch for over twenty years and has served for nearly five years as the clerk of the Salem and Derry Family Divisions and the Salem District Court. During the past several months she has also served as interim clerk for the Derry District Court.

Also familiar to many practitioners will be attorney Kathleen McDonald, recently selected as deputy clerk of the Manchester Family Division. Kathy served for many years as the marital department supervisor at Merrimack County Superior Court and most recently as a Deputy Clerk of Hillsborough County Superior Court North. In her deputy clerk role, Kathy will oversee the marital department with assistance from the marital department supervisor, Patricia Spencer.

Other familiar faces will be the marital department staff and marital court monitors from Hillsborough County Superior Court North and the domestic violence staff from Manchester District Court. Juvenile Intake Specialist Sharon Richardson from the Manchester District Court will supervise the juvenile/probate department, which will be staffed by case specialists from Manchester District Court and Hillsborough Probate Court.

Jurisdiction and Case Transfer

Jurisdiction is established by RSA 490-D:4. Beginning November 12, all new family cases arising in Manchester, 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 Manchester Family Division. Generally speaking, all open cases within the Family Division subject matter jurisdiction will be transferred to MFD concurrent with the court’s opening. These cases include all open marital cases from Hillsborough North Superior Court, all open juvenile and domestic violence cases from Manchester District Court, and all open minor guardianships, termination of parental rights, and some adoption cases from the Hillsborough Probate Court.

Until future family division locations are opened, additional marital cases currently heard at the Hillsborough North Superior Court will be heard at the Manchester Family Division. These include marital cases from the towns of Amherst, Bedford, Greenfield, Lyndeborough, Hancock, Mt. Vernon and Peterborough. Parties and counsel have begun receiving hearing notices for MFD in existing cases and newly-filed cases with initial hearings on or after November 12.


Manchester Family Division will open simultaneously with the roll-out of the court system’s computerized case management system – Odyssey. This means that from day one, MFD will enter cases into the Odyssey system, providing greatly improved case tracking and data collection abilities as well as a simplified system for docketing pleadings and issuing court notices. Staff transferring to the Manchester Family Division are being trained in Odyssey so that they will be familiar with the new system on opening day. The Odyssey system has already been implemented in nearly all NH Family Division courts, with only Conway and Ossipee Family Division locations remaining to convert in early 2010.

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. They are:

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 in several family division locations have been heard on a fast track by child support referees. Child support referees (sometimes called hearing officers) are lawyers appointed by the Family Division Administrative Judge, pursuant to RSA 490-D:10.

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. New Child Support Hearing Officer Dana Zucker, will also hear child support cases in the Laconia Family Division, as well as the Manchester Family Division.

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 (as when a marital master hears a case), all recommendations will be reviewed and counter-signed by a judge before they become orders of the court.

First Appearance

First Appearance is usually the first hearing scheduled in the Family Division after filing a parenting petition or a petition for divorce by parties with minor children. First Appearance is scheduled within two to four weeks from the filing of a joint petition or from 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.

Sometimes, after First Appearance and in conjunction with or in advance of mediation, parties 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 quickly or where mediation is deemed inappropriate.

Case Managers

At First Appearance, self-represented 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. In some instances, case managers also assist self- represented parties with document readiness in advance of temporary or final hearings. Manchester Family Division will have two case managers to work with self-represented parties.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

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. 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. Lawyers often choose to participate in these proceedings with their clients – either in person, at the session, or in another manner that works for the client and attorney. 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.

Manchester Family Division will also utilize neutral case evaluation prior to final hearings in some cases that were not appropriate for mediation or that did not otherwise reach a settlement.

Getting the Word Out about Manchester Family Division

Prior to opening Manchester Family Division, the expansion team will work to provide information to as many stakeholders as possible. Input has been and will continue to be solicited to help anticipate and resolve any potential difficulties as the new court location opens. While it is impossible to plan for every circumstance, efforts have been made to ensure a smooth transition from the existing courts to the new Manchester Family Division location. MFD Clerk Sherry Bisson will speak briefly to the Manchester Bar on October 20 about the new court and an open house will be held in the newly renovated court building soon after the opening of MFD. The date and time for this event will be posted in a future edition of Bar News, and in the e-Bulletin.

Future Family Division Openings

The next Family Division to open after Manchester is likely to be the Merrimack Family Division, concurrent with the opening of the new Merrimack courthouse. This is tentatively scheduled for May 2010. The Jaffrey-Peterborough Family Division which was tentatively slated to open in March 2010, is on hold until details about Cheshire County court locations are solidified. The Family Division Administrative Office at 603-271-6418 welcomes comments and questions as statewide expansion continues in Cheshire County and southern Hillsborough County.

More information about Family Division can be found at the Judicial Branch website.

Bar News thanks Brigette Siff-Holmes, Administrative Office of the Family Division, for gathering this information regarding the opening of the Manchester Family Division.

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