Bar News - December 17, 2014
Court News: ‘Settlement Judge’ Mediation Program Expanding
By: Kristen Senz
The settlement judge pilot program the court launched in Nashua in mid-2013 has recently expanded to Belknap and Rockingham counties and, along with further expansion, court officials are eying potential new approaches to the judicial mediation model.
Most of the felony cases that have entered the voluntary settlement judge pilot program in Nashua since its inception have ended in a non-trial disposition and have settled faster than they would have otherwise, Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau said recently.
Of the 34 cases that have entered the judicial mediation program, 29 have pleaded guilty by agreement, three are still pending and two have gone to trial.
“A lot of these might have pled anyway, and some of them might not have, but they’re getting resolved earlier and with both sides coming to agreement,” Nadeau said.
Belknap County held some settlement conferences this past summer when Judge Bruce Mohl was presiding, and recently some settlement conferences have taken place in Rockingham County.
Settlement conferences bring together attorneys, the defendant and, in some cases, the victim in a more informal setting to negotiate sentencing and restitution before a neutral judge, who can then accept a plea from the defendant at the end of the session. In Nashua, retired Judge Kathleen McGuire has handled the settlement conferences.
Nadeau said court administrators and stakeholders are discussing the possibility of expanding the program using mediators rather than judges.
“There are pros and cons to both approaches and we’ll be exploring that,” she said.
Launched in July 2013, the pilot was meant to target a backlog of criminal cases on the docket in Nashua, where it takes an average of 335 days for a felony to move from filing to completion, according to court statistics.
The vast majority of criminal cases – roughly 97 percent – resolve with a negotiated plea deal, and the settlement judge program is one of several court initiatives designed to get those cases off the trial docket quicker, without sacrificing justice.
A felony case flow working group, which includes defense attorneys, prosecutors, police and court staff, is now working on making adjustments to the protocols for the settlement judge program based on feedback from attorneys and other stakeholders over the past year. Nadeau said the group intends to clarify the purpose of the conferences and appropriate scheduling for the sessions.
Meanwhile, court officials continue to work with legislators on crafting a bill that would see felony charges filed first in superior court. If passed, the law would eliminate most probable cause hearings and all circuit court proceedings in felony cases. Nadeau said she expects the bill will be submitted and published before the end of December.