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Bar News - June 17, 2011

New Circuit Court Begins Operations July 1

The New Hampshire Circuit Court begins operation July 1, merging the District and Probate Courts and the Family Division into a single, streamlined system designed to improve services to both the public and the Bar while producing significant cost savings. The merger is the most significant overhaul of the New Hampshire Judicial Branch since the early 1980s, when the legislature unified all the state courts under a single administrative and financial structure.

The Supreme Court has named Edwin W. Kelly to serve as Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court, which will now handle 90 percent of all cases filed in the state court system. Kelly has served for 20 years as Administrative Judge of the District Court and seven years in that same capacity for the Family Division. David D. King, the Administrative Judge of the Probate Court since 2007, will become deputy Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court. King had been a probate court judge in Coos County for 17 years before he became Administrative Judge.

The Judicial Branch Innovation Commission, working closely with Judges Kelly and King, proposed the new Circuit Court model in a report issued in January. A 10-year implementation plan, to be carried out through retirements and attrition, was dramatically accelerated after the state lawmakers said that savings had to be realized by July 1, the beginning of FY 12-13 budget biennium. Estimates are that the management restructuring built into the new Circuit Court will result in $1.4 million in savings annually. Legislation establishing the Circuit Court (HB 609) was signed by Gov. John Lynch on May 16.

The merger entails streamlining mid-level management and "back-office" functions. Efficiencies will be realized by opening a Circuit Court call center by the end of the year to field informational calls from the public, freeing courthouse clerical staff to focus on case-processing. In addition, the judicial branch will be hiring 20 part-time employees to work off-hours processing cases. Other than the change in the name of the court, day-to-day activity for the public and the Bar will be no different on July 1 than it was on June 30.

"These are structural changes. The delivery of services will be the same," said Circuit Court administrator Paula Hurley. In addition to Hurley, the Circuit Court Administrators are Gina Apicelli; Patrick Ryan; and Brigette Siff Holmes all of whom have served as administrators either in the District Court or Family Division. The current Probate Court administrator, Marty Wagner, who was integral to development of the Circuit Court, plans to retire at the end of June.

When the doors open on July 1, jurisdictions for district, probate and family matters will remain the same, along with the address, telephone numbers and filing procedures. Scheduling will remain the same in what will now be known as the District, Probate and Family Divisions of the Circuit Court.

Probate cases will continue to be filed in the county seat, where probate matters are handled now, but the administrative duties that had been carried out by Probate Registers are now the responsibility of the newly appointed Circuit Court clerks.

All forms related to District, Probate and Family procedures will be renamed for the Circuit Court. As of July 1, the Judicial Branch website will have a new "Circuit Court" link with pages for the District, Probate and Family Divisions.

There will be ten Circuits, one for each of the state’s counties. Each circuit will have at least one Circuit Court clerk. Some of the state’s largest counties will have more than one Circuit Court clerk assigned to manage divisions in more than one city or town. For example, four new Circuit Court clerks have been appointed in Rockingham County; three circuit court clerks have been appointed to Merrimack and to Hillsborough counties (see management chart). Deputy clerks, and in some cases additional associate clerks, have also been appointed.

In Cheshire County, the marital division will continue to operate as part of the Cheshire County Superior Court; in all other counties, the Circuit Court Family Division will operate at the same locations.

Judges who now come under the Circuit Court will continue to preside over the same types of cases for which they were appointed prior to the July 1 merger. During the upcoming weeks, the Circuit Court Administrative judges will consider requests from judges who want to be certified by the Supreme Court to sit in divisions other than those to which they were previously appointed.. For example, a Probate Court judge will continue to hear probate cases, but could also ask to be certified to preside in the Circuit Court District Division; a District Division judge could ask to be certified to hear probate division matters. After July 1, newly appointed Circuit Court judges will be available for assignment to any division of the court.

Questions about the Circuit Court should be directed to the circuit court clerks or to Administrator Gina Apicelli.

This article was prepared by the Judicial Branch Communications Office.

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