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Bar News - January 14, 2011

Board Briefed on Innovation Commission Progress

At its Dec. 16 meeting, the NHBA Board of Governors was briefed by Donald Goodnow, executive director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, on the outline of recommendations agreed upon by the Judicial Branch Innovation Commission.

The Innovation Commission was created last spring by then-Chief Justice John Broderick to examine ways to change the structure and operations of the courts to economize and improve efficiency in an era of tightening resources. (The actual report is expected to be shared with legislators and made public some time in January. Summaries and links to the report will be conveyed to Bar members via the website and e-Bulletin as soon as it is available, and will be discussed in more detail in the next issue of Bar News.)

The Commission, chaired by high-tech executive Eric Herr, began with two financial targets: a short-term, 5 percent improvement in productivity in the upcoming two-year state budget cycle; and a 25 percent productivity improvement in ten years. Goodnow pointed out that 75 percent of the judicial system budget is comprised of salaries and benefits and that the court has not kept pace with technology.

Goodnow said some of the changes that the Innovation Commission is recommending will affect behind-the-scenes case processing and will aim to consolidate duplicative levels of management in the courts. (See November and October issues of Bar News, which discuss the proposed circuit court concept that will bring together the district and probate courts and the family division administrations in each county or judicial district.)

Other recommendations will likely include:
  • Shifting minor traffic offenses now heard in district court to administrative tribunals in the Department of Safety, which can fund additional hearing officer positions with federal dollars.
  • Diverting some high-volume initial pleadings with high default rates (such as landlord-tenant eviction filings) to a centralized processing center which can improve efficiency and relieve administrative workload in the local courts.
  • Using online software for jury management. A number of functions associated with communicating with members of jury pools can be done with software, saving on staff time and making it easier for jurors to communicate with the court.
  • Centralizing other functions, including fine collections and initial telephone inquiries for the circuit courts.
  • Beginning the process of implementing electronic filing for the courts. This will be a multi-year process, which will include selecting what form of electronic filing, developing specifications and choosing a vendor, and ultimately, rollout and implementation.
  • Greater use of electronic communication between attorneys, litigants and the courts holds much potential for improving service and efficiency, but much work lies ahead.
  • Greater use of video conferencing for non-evidentiary hearings can result in long-term savings for the courts and for local and county governments, but capital expenditures will be needed to implement it.
  • Introduction of performance-measurement for the courts. Goodnow said that the Innovation Commission will recommend that the judicial branch begin to develop performance measures for various court sites to help them all become more efficient. He said that the courts are being assisted by experts from the National Center for State Courts, which are working on this project in several states.
  • Regionalization of superior court administration. The superior court is collapsing its management structure by consolidating clerk positions in smaller counties. Already, Sullivan and Cheshire counties share a clerk, and, upon the recent retirement of Grafton County Superior Court Clerk Robert Muh, Grafton and Coos courts will be administered by David Carlson. Eventually, Carroll and Belknap County courts will be managed by one clerk.

Other types of cases will be examined to consider whether non-judicial "referees" could be appointed to hear cases or parts of cases.

In discussion following Goodnow’s presentation, NHBA President Marilyn McNamara asked whether performance measures would be sophisticated enough to evaluate the "quality" of justice by, for example, considering how often cases in a particular court are reopened by subsequent filings.

In other actions, the Board approved:

Nomination of Lawrence A. Vogelman as president-elect. Under the NHBA Constitution and Bylaws, the current president-elect, Jennifer L. Parent, becomes NHBA president for the 2011-2012 Association year starting in June. The Board nominates a candidate for president-elect in December.

Appointments of Brian Shaughnessy and Heather Tacconi for the Pro Bono Governing Board, and reappointments of Catherine Shanelaris and Jeremy Walker to the Pro Bono Board.

Publication of the annual update of the Real Estate Title Standards, following a presentation by Carol Brooks, who chairs the Title Standards revision committee of the Real Property Law Section. (See article summarizing the update.)

Publication of an Ethics Committee opinion #2010/2011 – 1, titled, Collecting Attorney’s Fees – Debt Forgiveness and Reporting to Regulating Agency.

The Board also received updates on the following:
  • SAFE Act corrective legislation. Attorney John MacIntosh, who serves as the NHBA legislative liaison, briefed the board on efforts to assist legislators in drafting proposed amendments to the NH SAFE Act.
  • New legislative session. MacIntosh provided an update on changes made to legislative committees dealing with the judiciary, and the creation of a committee to review bills of address. (Bar News will report more on the new legislature in the next issue.)

The Board of Governors’ next scheduled meeting is 3:00 p.m., January 20, at the Bar Center.

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