Bar News - September 20, 2002
Court Staff Are Catching Flak at the Frontlines
By: NH Superior Court Chief Justice Walter L. Murphy
Court Staff Are Catching Flak at the Frontlines
Ranks Thinned by Budget Cuts
Voice: "Good Morning, Hillsborough County Superior Court-Marital."
Caller: "Hello, my divorce case was heard a couple of weeks ago and I've been waiting for the order. Can you tell me when I am going to get it?
Voice: "It's here and it's a matter of getting it processed. It will probably take several weeks before we can get to it."
Caller: "That's ridiculous! I need it and want it NOW! "
Voice: "I'm terribly sorry, but we have hundreds of orders backed up and our staff is working as hard as they can to get them processed and sent out. But we're short-handed and it's going to take some time."
Caller: " I want to speak to whoever's in charge there. I can't believe someone's got the order on their desk and you say you can't get to it."
Voice: "The clerk of court is Marshall Buttrick."
Caller: "I want to speak to him NOW!"
Voice: "This IS Marshall Buttrick."
This is no fictional account, but an example of the encounters that are becoming more and more typical at the superior courthouse in Nashua and other superior court sites. The Clerks themselves not only staff the telephone lines, but are daily pitching in at otherwise empty desks to address the serious and unacceptable delays resulting from lack of adequate staff to deal with the mountain of paperwork involved in the judicial process.
Throughout the court system, we are currently operating with over 60 vacancies in staff resulting from attrition. In Nashua, for ex ample, the total staff of 16 has been reduced to 10, while Carroll operates with but 60 percent of its staff. The same situation persists in the district and probate courts and the Family Division. These vacancies have nothing to do with the additional staff positions requested in the last budget cycle, which were not funded.
To live within the severe limitations in the court budget, amounts otherwise earmarked for employees' salaries and benefits have to be diverted to pay for the court's core operations, which remain under-funded, but are mandated by the constitution and laws enacted by the Legislature.
We are all too aware that the state simply does not have sufficient financial resources to fully address all its legitimate needs. We have made other efforts to live within our extremely limited means: We have reduced the number of jury trial months, and the district and probate courts and Family Division have severely cut back on the number of court sessions to reduce expenditures for per diem judges and security. Despite these and other steps taken to minimize expenses, drastic increases in such items as the cost of medical benefits and such mundane items as postage have required that our budget woes be balanced on the backs of our non-judicial employees by placing almost insurmountable burdens on them.
The difficulties we are experiencing were not at all unanticipated; they have been the subject of numerous new accounts, as well as the CLE program presented at the New Hampshire Bar Association Mid-Winter Bar meeting in January of this year, where all the details of the budget process were discussed together with what effect it would have on the users of the system. What is disappointing, but not necessarily surprising, is the failure by the general public, as well as the Bar itself, to appreciate the problem.
The professional dedication of those who work on a daily basis in all the courts is simply extraordinary. All too often, their efforts go unnoticed, unrewarded and taken for granted. Their responsibilities continue to increase and their tasks made more complicated and time-consuming as a result of well-intended legislation and court rules and procedures intended to make the courts more "user friendly."
It takes experienced staff members in a marital department approximately 20 minutes to process each simple divorce decree and prepare it to be sent out to the parties and counsel. In addition, they are required to issue orders of notice, schedule hearings, deal with requests for continuances, emergency hearings and a myriad of other burdensome ministerial duties, including making certain that all filings in the case have been entered on the docket and are in the file when the hearing is held before a judge or marital master. They also have to answer telephone inquiries, and deal with the general public at the counter, which only makes them fall further behind in processing.
Constantly struggling to keep up creates frustration on everybody's part, and in many instances takes a toll on the mental and physical health of the staff. Occasionally, it results in an employee leaving and taking a higher paying, less stressful job in the private sector, thereby creating yet another vacancy.
Adding to the frustration of court personnel is the growing number of self-represented litigants who seek legal advice from them, and when they don't receive it, complain about their treatment at the hands of what they perceive as uncaring and incompetent public officials. Regrettably, even some members of the Bar have responded to delays by making uncivil, insulting, unprofessional and, in some instances, threatening comments toward staff members.
Bar members may alleviate the situation by being more patient and understanding and taking the lead in explaining the staff shortage to their clients. They can also take a more active role in educating the public as well as their local lawmakers about the toll the continuing shortage of funding is having on the representatives' constituents.
The caller in the introductory scenario is right. People look to the courts to be responsive to their legitimate needs. It's not fair to the public when justice is delayed because the courts don't have the facilities they need to process the paperwork. And it's equally unfair to place the blame on the hard-working, dedicated staff whose responsibility it is to do the job when they don't have the appropriate means.
That's why we have decided to turn the telephones off for a couple of hours a day each afternoon at some of the courthouses. It's not because our staff doesn't want to talk to our citizens. It's because they have to have some uninterrupted time during the day to tackle the paperwork.