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Bar News - August 19, 2011

Improvements Still to Come for Circuit Court, Judges Say

Editor’s note: The following article is based on remarks from Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly and Deputy Administrative Judge David King, from the July 14 NH Bar Association webcast, supplemented with information provided in early August.

Contributing to the relatively problem-free rollout was that by the time of the July 1 official opening, the new management structure (which reduced the number of clerks and deputies to 18 clerks and 31 deputies in the circuit courts) had been in place for a month, said Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly, at the NHBA’s July 14 webcast.

The Circuit Court was the first major innovation put into place arising from recommendiations of the Judicial Branch Innovation Commission formed last year. Additional steps to streamline or improve court operations will be coming online in the next few months, which will reduce or shift the workload of the clerks’ staff in the courthouse and make their work easier, Kelly said.

The following are additional highlights and tips from the webcast.

Communicating with Circuit Court

Can we use email to communicate with the court? Why aren’t the email addresses on the website?

Judge King encouraged Bar members to use email to communicate with clerks for specific questions. The clerks can answer the message at a time of their choosing, and perhaps provide a better answer. The clerks’ email addresses are not listed on the Judicial Branch website (to reduce the opportunity for the addresses to be harvested and trigger spam).

The formula for the addresses is: the clerk’s (or other court employee’s) first initial and last name followed by Thus, John Smith would be (There are a couple of individuals in the court system with the same initials and last name. Contact these individuals for their specific address.)

If you have complaints or suggestions about operations or processing issues, contact the clerk of your circuit. Or if you are uncomfortable with that, contact the Circuit Court Administrative Office by phone (271-6418) or email.

Will clerks’ staff be trained to answer questions about all divisions of the Circuit Court?

Judge King: It depends on the circuit. In the 1st Circuit (Coos County), the staff were moved into the same room in Lancaster and are in stages of cross training. In a larger court, such as Nashua, the staff will stay where they are – those division staffs are not merging. In small circuits, there will likely be more merging and cross training.

Will related matters in different division be consolidated?

Matters involving more than one division of the circuit court, such as an estate case with a related collections issue in the district division, will not necessarily be made a single matter. The probate division does have ancillary jurisdiction in some matters. Judge King said that the attorneys should inform the circuit court that these matters should be scheduled on the same day if possible.

Who Does What?

What are the roles of the Circuit Court administrators and the circuit clerks and deputy clerks?

We have 18 Circuit Court Clerks supervising 35 locations. The Clerk is the administator of the circuit and generally is supervising 13 to 40 people. The 31 deputies are the hands-on managers at various locations.

Statewide, the system is overseen by the administrative judges, Judges Kelly and King, assisted by four administrators who provide coordination and ensure consistency in operations. The lead administrator is Gina Apicelli, with Patrick Ryan, Paula Hurley and Brigette Siff Holmes.

What’s Next?

What innovations are in the works and how soon will we see them?

After-hours processing. Judge Kelly said that a team of part-time clerical personnel is being put together to do routine case-processing tasks at several courthouses after the courthouses are closed. A pilot project found that staff who worked after-hours, exclusively on case-processing tasks, completed twice the work of staff whose attention was divided among dealing with the public, answering telephone calls and other daytime interruptions. Staff is still being hired, the judges said. "The impact of these innovations will be felt very soon – in the next couple of months," Kelly said. "As work that had been done during the day is worked on by the off hours processing team, that will mean the staff in the clerks office will be much more focused on what happens during the day."

Call center. Also under development is a centralized call center which will initially answer all Circuit Court calls. This operation, due to open by January, is being supervised by former Merrimack County Probate Register Jane Bradstreet.

Dictation center. Judges and masters will be able to dictate orders over a special telephone line, and those orders will be typed up and emailed back to the courthouse. "This will take some of the workload away from the clerks’ offices, and allow that work to be done more promptly and effectively," King said.

How will the call center operate? Will attorneys be able to bypass the call center to talk directly with court personnel at the courthouse?

Judge Kelly said that calls that need to addressed directly by court personnel in the courthouse will be seamlessly transferred by the call center staff. He said that the call center system would not work if there was an end-around built into it. "It will be just as it is now – the call center is just like the person who answers the phone at the courthouse. If you tell them that you need to speak to the clerk, your call can be put through."

Kelly said a field trial conducted last spring showed that 70 percent of the calls to courthouses could be answered by a court employee with general knowledge of court operations and access to the Odyssey case-management system to answer, for example, docket information. Reducing the number of calls going directly to the courthouse will be an improvement. "The clerks’ offices will be less chaotic. We are going to be changing the culture, and that will be better for everyone," Kelly said.

What about online access to dockets by attorneys and the public?

The Innovation Commission recommendations included a proposal to move ahead with development of a comprehensive "eCourt" project that would include online docket access, efiling and enoticing. That project will take several years to develop and roll out, but the legislature has provided initial funding in the capital budget to begin its development. The implementation of Odyssey throughout the Judicial Branch is complete, and it forms the foundation for building a retrieval and distribution system for digital court records. (A Bar News this fall will focus solely on progress with the eCourt project.)

Judge Kelly said that the development of an eCourt system will have to keep in mind the needs of self-represented litigants as well as sophisticated users. "The Circuit Court handles 90 percent of the cases in the state courts – that’s 200,000 filings a year. Many of our litigants are self-represented and any system that we develop is going to have to be usable by the bar and the average citizen."

Judges and Masters

Will Circuit Court judges be hearing cases in all divisions?

No judge now sitting in the circuit court will be required to hear cases in the other divisions. Some of the judges have expressed a preference to be certified to hear cases in other divisions. Some of this had already happened with the district or probate court judges being certified to hear cases in the family division. It will be up to the Supreme Court to approve a certification mechanism for certification that will include training.

Are part-time judges disqualified from practicing in other divisions of circuit court?

Under a new section of the Judicial Branch statute, 490-F:9, part-time judges in the circuit court may not appear as an attorney before any division or at a circuit court site at which the judge has been certified or assigned. Attorneys associated with a part time judge may not appear in a division where the judge is certified. (Judge Stephen Samaha from Littleton has attorneys in his firm who practice in district courts other than where Judge Samaha presided. Under the new statute, those attorneys could no longer appear in any district division, and, as a result, Judge Samaha tendered his resignation to the Governor on July 18.)

Are new judges going to be appointed this year?

The legislation associated with the budget reads that there will be a maximum of 28 judges for the Circuit Court, said Kelly. "In that case we have 2 full-time vacancies. The salaries for those unfilled vacancies provides us with some financial flexibility. We want to look carefully at the situation before asking the governor to appoint more judges at this time, Kelly said.

The court currently has 26 full-time judges, 31 part-time judges (counting the resignation of Judge Samaha) and 14 marital masters (1 of those is half-time).

Are marital masters being phased out?

Judge Kelly said that the final version of the budget legislation retains existing masters until they retire or resign. If a master retires or resigns, the judicial branch can seek the conversion of that vacancy into a judicial post.

Kelly said the marital master position is less costly than a judicial position but a number of legislators have expressed a preference for reducing or eliminating masters and replacing them with judges.

Forms and Captions

How do we refer to the court?

Use the name of the Circuit, followed by the division and the location. Example:

2nd Circuit – Family Division – Haverhill

What do I do with my old forms? Can I still use them?

Judge Kelly said there will be no consequences for attorneys using forms, that are otherwise current, that bear the old name of the court. He said that attorneys may exchange their old forms for new forms at the court. He said he expects all filings on Circuit Court forms at least by Dec. 31, 2011.

Coming Attractions

Are there more rules changes in the works?

At the webcast, Judge Kelly said that no substantive practice changes were planned for a year, to allow the organizational changes to solidify. However, later in July, Judges Kelly and King indicated to family law section members that they would be asking the Supreme Court to authorize the implementation of the mandatory disclosure rules that had already been approved and proposed for adoption this spring. That adoption was delayed due to the many personnel changes and transition issues associated with the creation of the circuit court. At the time, the judges assured section members that the postponement would be temporary.

At presstime, the Supreme Court had not acted to establish a new adoption date for the mandatory disclosure rules. (The June 16 issue of Bar News contained two articles addressing practical aspects to be considered when the mandatory disclosure rules take effect. The Circuit Court webpage has links.)

New process for traffic cases will shorten dockets

The Circuit Court is implementing a new approach to minor motor vehicle cases, such as speeding and other violations.

Judge Kelly said that a plan to shift these cases to the Department of Safety had been abandoned, but the Innovation Commission process led to a reexamination of how this high-volume area of cases could better handled.

Of the defendants who do not immediately plead guilty and pay their fine by mail, the vast majority (70 to 80 percent) do not go to trial. Under the old system, all of these cases were placed on the trial docket. Most would default by not appearing, or they would come to court and then negotiate a plea. Ultimately, out of some 40 cases that might have been put on the courts’ docket for a morning session, perhaps 2 or 3 15-minute trials would actually be held. Under the new plea-by-mail system in the Circuit Courts, a mandatory pre-trial appearance is scheduled for the not-guilty pleas. At the pre-trial appearance, without a judge, these cases are either defaulted or the defendants negotiate with police or prosecutors, thus leaving only a small number of cases to be set for a trial docket. "With this system, we are achieving the same level of pleas, but we are taking 70 percent of those cases off the trial docket," Kelly said.

Are there other innovations still to be considered?

Judge King noted that the judicial branch is looking very carefully at the jurisdiction of the court and the possiblity of diverting cases that could be handled without going before a judge. "Should courts be handling ordinance violations? Do we really need a judge to hear a complaint between neighbors over noise?"

Judge Kelly said the family division has been able to make inroads on its handling of cases by using referees for ongoing child support disputes. "We continue to look carefully at jurisdiction and where else we can use referees, such as involuntary emergency admissions. We have district division judges holding hearings at the NH Hospital four afternnoons a week."

How will the success of the Circuit Court be measured?

Judge Kelly said that HB 609 requires quarterly reports to the legislature on the progress of the Innovation Commission recommendations, with the first due July 1. "We are tracking every single change we make to see what impact it has," Judge Kelly said.

In upcoming issues of Bar News, look for articles addressing the implementation of electronic court records and filing, the development of the call center, and the project to bring videoconference capability to every courtroom, county lockup, and each public defender office.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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