Bar News - April 15, 2011
Opinion: Will Shrinking Budget Shortchange Justice?
By: Adam Hescock
In New Hampshire, you get your day in district court even for a speeding ticket. Considering the current budget crisis, how long will this be the case?
As I sat in the courtroom of a district court recently and waited for my case to be called, I watched a trial in which an attorney from Quebec had driven six hours to fight a speeding ticket. He knew that it would have been much cheaper to simply pay the ticket, but he wouldn’t plead guilty because he was convinced he was not speeding. I realized that in making the decision to fight the speeding ticket, this man put his faith in our court system. He got his fair trial and was found not guilty.
This case, and others like it, were only violation-level offenses, heard by a judge who could later preside over a probable cause hearing for a murder charge. Even though the charges were only punishable by a fine, the rules of evidence and all the state and federal constitutional protections applied.
In one trial, a man testified about mistakes made during the investigation and filing of a speeding ticket. In another, a man went back to the scene of the ticketing to take pictures of an intersection with his cell phone, which he then showed to the judge. Despite docket pressure to move cases through the district courts as quickly and efficiently as possible, these men got to tell their stories and defend themselves.
Watching these people get their day in court made me proud to be part of the New Hampshire court system. Now that system is in danger. I have already witnessed many changes since the last budget cuts. Judges are less available. There are fewer jury trials. There are long delays between arraignment and trials.
Governor Lynch has proposed an Administrative Traffic Court that would take traffic offenses like those mentioned above off the district court docket to save judge time and money. Additional changes have been proposed to cut costs and streamline the court system.
In the short term, the budget crisis is having a direct effect on what others have described as our "access to justice." The current delays caused by less judge time or by the potential for a long drive to Concord to challenge a speeding ticket, are easy to quantify. Right now, people are waiting longer for trials, hearings and orders. Long-term effects of further budget cuts will be more difficult to quantify.
As the current changes and proposals to streamline the court system become the new normal, our expectations for justice will gradually change. Over time, will we grow accustomed to being rushed through hearings because the judge has more cases than he or she can handle before the end of the day? Will we see more and more pro se litigants get cut off during their trials because they are taking too much judge time? Will this result in fewer people asking for their day in court, or paying a fine instead of standing up for themselves? Is that a court system we will still be proud of?
The NH Bar Association website has a page dedicated to the court system budget crisis where you can submit comments. I encourage you to take the time now to share with other members how the budget crisis has affected your ability to access justice.
Adam Hescock is an attorney with the NH Public Defender’s Office in Orford, a member of the New Lawyers’ Committee and a participant in the NHBA Leadership Academy Class of 2011. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.