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Bar News - January 15, 2010

Family Divisionís Expansion Is Nearly Complete


The map depicts the years that the Family Division became operational in each county. Hillsborough County North became operational in 2009 with two sites, but Hillsborough South and Cheshire canít switch until court facilities are available.
Court officials say Novemberís opening of the Manchester Family Division, the highest-volume court in the stateís largest city, was the smoothest yet. Only facility issues in Hillsborough and Cheshire counties stand in the way of the Family Divisionís completing its statewide expansion.

Currently the Family Division has jurisdiction over the marital, juvenile and guardianship cases for Hillsborough County Northern District cases. Its takeover of Hillsborough South cases wonít occur until Hillsborough North Superior Court vacates the Nashua courthouse and returns to its home in Manchester after the courthouse there is renovated. And expansion to Cheshire County remains on hold until suitable facilities in Keene are built.

In an interview with Bar News, Family Division Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly and administrators Gina Apicelli and Brigette Siff-Holmes reflected on the progress of the court, both in geographical spread and in refinements of its processes as the Family Division has expanded from its original foothold in the pilot counties of Grafton and Rockingham in 2005 to nine of the 10 counties in the state.

Since the beginning of the expansion of the Family Division in 2005, 23 new sites have been opened across the state. Foremost among the changes, notes Judge Kelly, has been a growing awareness that while the Family Division is based in many communities, it is a single organization. Everyone who works for the Family Division is encouraged to think of himself/herself as a part of the whole. "We donít want staff people at any location to think of their office as a separate unit," Judge Kelly said.

Family Division Administrator Gina Apicelli.
Family Division staff, wherever they are, work very hard to get orders out in a timely fashion, "so that people can get on with their lives," says Clerk Sherry Bisson, of the new Manchester site. But everyone in the Family Division, whatever the location, is ready to lend a hand wherever there may be a backlog. Any staff person, even if assigned to a certain locale, could be asked to work at any of the other sites if the need arose.

Kelly said the Family Division administrators are tracking how many decisions are pending longer than 30 days throughout the system, and if backlogs are identified, staff may be temporarily redeployed from one site to another to address the problem. "This is a major shift in philosophy," said Kelly, alluding to the tradition of local courts seen as county or local institutions instead of components of a unified statewide system.

The flexibility of a statewide approach to staffing has helped make the expansion easier over the years. For example, the opening of the Family Division in Manchester was preceded by an intensive effort, involving staff from all of the trial courts, to erase the "enormous backlog" of paperwork related to cases in the busy marital division of Hillsborough North. At the same time, the new Family Division staff was learning how to use the new Odyssey case-management system. "We converted 4,000 open marital cases to Odyssey in advance of the move," said Apicelli.

Said Kelly: "We view the evolution of the roll-out process as the natural continuum of change. This continuum recently culminated in the Manchester opening, where we saw a welcoming anticipation and a warm reception by many local family law practitioners."

Before the Family Division

Family Division Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly and Administrator Brigette Siff-Holmes.
Before the advent of the Family Division, domestic cases were scattered throughout the courts, with divorce, parenting and child support cases handled by the Superior Court, juvenile matters by the District Court, and guardianships and termination of parental rightsí cases by the Probate Court.

However, RSA 490-D:2 gave the Family Division jurisdiction over all the following matters: divorce, legal separation, civil union dissolution, parenting, domestic violence protection, delinquency, CHINS, abuse/neglect, termination of parental rights and guardianship of minors. Adoptions which relate to abuse/neglect, guardianship, or termination of parental rights proceedings also came under its jurisdiction.

When the Manchester Family Division was formed, Hillsborough North Superior Court, Hillsborough Probate Court and the Manchester District Court were consolidated into one court. That court is located in the Manchester District Court building at 35 Amherst Street, Manchester. All Manchester cases have been transferred to the Manchester Family Division, as well as cases from Amherst, Bedford, Lyndeborough, and Mont Vernon (temporarily, until they are relocated to Merrimack or Milford in the next phase of the Family Division).

Kelly estimates that the number of cases to be filed across the existing 24 Family Division locations in 2010 will exceed 26,500.

From pilot program to state-wide expansion

The Family Division pilot program began in 1996 with the opening of the first Family Divisions in Grafton and Rockingham counties. "We have tried hard to be consistent in all locations," said Kelly. "We were a brand new court, charged with changing the way family cases are handled; we were supposed to do things differently, create a less adversarial environment for families."

"We look at the time frames at the ends of cases and at other markers and compare ourselves with national best practices," said Apicelli. "We want to become more efficientómove cases along so families can Ďget back to normalí as quickly as possible."

"Probably one of the most gratifying things we have seen is the increase in the number of parents who now go to the parenting seminars. Because of First Appearance [now required of all parties filing for divorce], we have the opportunity to catch people early-on, rather than at the end of their cases," Apicelli said.

In addition to explaining and demystifying the divorce process, Siff-Holmes points out, First Appearance enables the court to set expectations for couples to attend the Child Impact Seminar before they come to First Appearance. And if they come to the mandatory session without completing that requirement, Family Division staff make sure they are signed up for the course before they leave. "This was a major change," said Siff-Holmes. Before the advent of the Family Division, "virtually none of the parties had taken the parenting course before they had finished the divorce. It then made no sense to try to punish them for not taking it after the fact."

Judge Kelly addressed concerns by some attorneys that the Family Division processes, with the requirement that parties, including those represented by attorneys, must be oriented to the Family Division by the court itself, wrongly deemphasize the role of attorneys. Kelly said the Family Division approach addresses the fact that in most family cases, at least one party, and often both parties, are unrepresented. Those critics, he asserts, arenít acknowledging realities.

"Shame on us if we [the court system and lawyers] ignore these changing dynamics. Members of the bar have to take the opportunity to look at how they practice lawóit is an opportunity, and yes it is difficult to do." Kelly said he believes most lawyers in family practice are embracing the Family Divisionís approach to divorce cases.

Apicelli also noted that there are several occasions when judges making remarks at First Appearance counsel the parties to seek legal advice and encourage them to consider hiring an attorney on an "unbundled" or limited-scope basis.

As the Family Division has expanded throughout the state, the novelty is wearing off. As that has happened, "the processes became the standard; [and] the vast majority of family law practitioners are now familiar with them."
Family Division Implementation as of December 31, 2009
July 1, 1996 (Pilot Project) Grafton and Rockingham Counties (8 locations)
September 12, 2005 Sullivan County (2 locations)
April 28, 2006 Carroll and Coos Counties (5 locations)
May 12, 2006 Belknap County (1 location)
September 4, 2007 Merrimack County (4 locations)
January 17, 2008 Strafford County (2 locations)
January 16, 2009 Goffstown FD (1 location)
November 12, 2009 Manchester FD (1 location)

Kelly believes that as each wave of new lawyers enters the NH Bar fresh out of law school. He says, "These processes will be viewed as the norm. "New graduates will be products of contemporary law school curriculum emphasizing the importance of mediation and alternative dispute resolution options."

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