Bar News - December 13, 2013
A Look at NH Circuit Court After Two Years
By: Brian Wallstin
The NH Circuit Court, formed by a drastic restructuring rapidly executed in the spring of 2011, has transformed a network of local courts into a centralized system, with an emphasis on efficiency and adaptability.
In January 2011, a special commission convened by then-Chief Justice John Broderick called for consolidation of the district, probate and family courts into a new Circuit Court. Clerks and supervisors at 66 court locations would be reduced by half, and judges would be cross-trained to hear cases in all three divisions. The panel also recommended, among other innovations, the creation of a call center to handle routine phone inquiries from attorneys and litigants, which would speed up case processing and other court business.
The new system would save an estimated $29 million, mostly through staff retirements and attrition over a 10-year period. But, as Circuit Court Deputy Administrative Judge David King recalled, state lawmakers liked the idea so much, they wanted it done in three months.
“The Legislature heard the savings and didn’t hear the attrition,” King said. “So we brought all the clerks and deputy clerks together and said, ‘This thing is coming down the railroad tracks and we can’t stop it.’”
Almost three years later, the train is well past the station and, by all accounts, chugging along pretty smoothly.
King says “most” of the 30 full-time circuit court judges are now certified to hear cases in at least two divisions. All new judicial appointments to the Circuit Court must be certified in the three divisions, which will make it easier to schedule hearings, especially in rural areas.
James Patten, special justice for the 3rd Circuit in Ossipee, was one of the few judges under the old District Court system to hear cases in all three divisions. Patten said that, on any given day, he can “change hats” from hearing a family or probate matter to signing search warrants or handling arraignments in the district division. Patten said he would prefer it if all sitting judges in the new system were required to be cross-trained, rather than only the new justices. “There’s a learning curve, but we’ve done this, so let’s all get on board right now,” he said. “The more we have that can do all three, the better.”
Jaye Rancourt, president of the New Hampshire Bar Association, said that fast-tracking the consolidation of the three divisions led to some confusion early on. But, once the dust settled, it’s had little impact on attorneys’ ability to do their jobs. Likewise, the most dramatic part of the restructuring - cutting more than 100 staff positions - has led to few problems. Given the speed and scope of the staff changes, delays were minimal, she said.
“Now that it’s up and running and the kinks have been worked out, it seems to be working okay from the perspective of the Bar,” she said. “The biggest change was what we write on the pleadings, what we call the courts. And there were some physical space issues - where to go. But I have not noticed, nor have I heard from attorneys, that the consolidation itself caused much of a change.”
Fewer clerks, more efficiency
For clerks like Sherry Bisson, the new system represents a transformation.
Bisson was one of 52 clerks and registers asked to reapply for their jobs in spring 2011. Bisson ended up moving from the family division in Manchester to become circuit clerk in Nashua. Two changes in particular have had the biggest impact on her job: the call center, which is handling some 11,000 phone calls a month; and the part-time staff brought on to process cases at night and on the weekend.
“As a clerk, it’s allowed me to move people around to do other work during the day,” Bisson said. “And that’s put us in really great shape as far as case processing.”
A year ago, she said, there were 1,500 backlogged criminal dispositions in the district division. Now, it’s fewer than 120. Family-court orders are being sent out much more quickly, sometimes within a week. And Odyssey, the state’s online case management system, is getting updated more quickly, further reducing the number of calls clerks receive.
“It all comes full circle for us,” Bisson said. “If we were still two months behind, when the call center took a call, they would have to transfer it to us to answer the question. Now we’re in such great shape, they can usually answer a question without someone having to look at the file.
There were “a ton of complaints” when the call center first opened, in January 2012, Rancourt said. Attorneys were frustrated by the inability of some staff to provide information on specific cases. Sometimes call center staff were reluctant to transfer a call to the court without trying to resolve the issue themselves, causing a delay. And there were cases in which the call center passed along the wrong information about a case because Odyssey had not yet been updated.
“It was partly an issue of the lawyers getting used to the change and the call center staff becoming better trained to either answer questions or know when an attorney needs to be transferred to the courthouse,” Rancourt said.
The commission also recommended transferring jurisdiction over “plea by mail” cases, such as speeding violations, to the NH Department of Safety. That would have saved an estimated $1 million and freed up judges to hear more pressing matters.
But, King said, the DOS estimated it would have cost the agency $1.5 million to do the work. That led to a statewide pilot project in which accused violators who want to contest their tickets are scheduled for a pre-trial conference with the prosecutor. King said about 90 percent of the cases are now resolved before going to a judge. (Bar
News reported extensively on this pilot project in November 2012.)
“We know about 20,000 of those cases went through the pre-trial process last year, and historically, those cases were all on the docket for maybe 5-10 minutes of scheduled judge time,” he said. “We’ve measured those savings, and we saved about 30 judge days.”
King said legislators’ decision to scrap the 10-year rollout for a three-month implementation “freaked everybody out.” But, with resources shrinking each year, it was time to move beyond the incremental change of years past to a modern, streamlined system that better serves everyone.
“In retrospect, they did us a favor,” he said. “We were able to create this brand new court from scratch and pick our managers. It was pretty painful, but we had to do it.”