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Bar News - November 18, 2011

Innovation Requires Phasing Out Marital Masters


Over the course of the past few years, a number of talented attorneys, businesspeople and others have gathered to find ways to make our judiciary more efficient and more capable of meeting the demands currently placed upon it by society. These efforts led to the court innovation project that is transforming our court system statewide.

One of the key gaps that the review of our courts found was that within the three divisions of the lower court – district, family and probate – there were wide disparities in the availability and use of resources. On any given day in one locale, the district court might be packed, while the probate court could have sat idle. Alternately, Manchester District Court could have been bursting at the seams, while less than 20 minutes away Merrimack District Court could have available resources.

Clearly, everyone knew that we needed a better way to deploy judicial resources.

A significant change that the court innovation committee recognized, and the Legislature strongly endorsed, was the need to move away from a "silo" approach to managing caseloads and move toward cross-training our judges and courts. Distinctions between various court structures should be reduced and each judge should be able to handle a more diverse number of cases.

As many reading this are likely aware, this resulted in the circuit court system, where the judiciary will be moving away from specialty courts and judges, and towards an environment where jurists cover a broader array of cases. This will ultimately lead to a leaner, more efficient and more scalable judicial branch. It will lead to a court system in which the state can bring 21st century performance and management principles into our courts. The ultimate goal is, as it always should be, more efficient use of resources that will allow for better access to courts by our citizens.

To accomplish this, during the first half of this biennial term, the Legislature passed House Bill 609 and, even in the leanest state budget in decades with a nearly 18 percent reduction in state general fund spending, found a way to make sure that the Judicial Branch was one of the few entities in state government that received greater funding than the prior budget. The House and Senate are, and will remain, committed to making sure that we deliver a strong, technologically relevant and efficient court system that meets the needs of the public. They have shown that the state is prepared to invest in our judiciary.

Among the changes that were necessary in creating a flexible judiciary that could adjust to the needs of the public was a transformation of the marital masters system. In a structure that focuses on jurists with multiple skills as we envision in the circuit court, we no longer viewed the limited role of marital masters, among the most specialized jurists in the judiciary, as a desirable use of resources. The decision was made that these functions as well should evolve to meet the new landscape.

Primarily for this reason, in HB 609 we included language to allow the judiciary to apply for conversion of marital masters to circuit court judges when their terms expired or they retire or to otherwise have those positions lapse if not converted. The Legislature’s goal in this regard is that the courts move away from the concept of having a highly specialized group of individuals who focus entirely on family law and towards the model of having judges who can have the ability to handle a broader array of cases. Here as in other areas, the expectation is that this restructuring should ultimately lead to shorter waits, better use of resources and more savings to the taxpayers of the state.

A secondary goal of the conversion or lapsing of marital master positions is to more fully integrate the adjudication of family issues, such as divorce and custody proceedings, into the court system. The Legislature found that a significant area of concern and objections expressed by constituents with government operations has been with our marital master system. Varying reasons were given, some of which would absolve the system of any fault, but the time had come to end it.

Prospectively, the creation of the circuit courts and the transition of marital masters, are only steps in a larger effort to bring efficiency to the judiciary. The state is also beginning to bring the power of technology to the courtroom to accelerate proceedings, reduce staff demands and reduce reproduction and storage costs.

All of us have a vested interest in making the state’s courts as efficient, effective and available as possible. Both in fact and in perception, courts must be open, accessible and fair to our citizens. This legislative session, we have taken strong steps to make these goals a reality.

William L. O’Brien is Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and a member of the NH Bar Association. He has a law practice in Concord.

RELATED: Legislature Seeks Phase-out Of Marital Masters

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