Bar News - February 18, 2015
Section Connection: Court Panel Addresses New Complex Family Law Docket
By: Kysa Crusco
From left: Senior Circuit Court Administrator Gina Belmont, Circuit Court Staff Attorney Rebeka Fortess, Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelley and Judge Robert Foley participate in a panel discussion at a recent NHBA Family Law Section meeting.
The NH Circuit Court last fall formed a new complex case docket “in the interests of responding to the needs of the public and promoting efficient use of Judicial Branch resources.” The NH Bar Association Family Law Section, keen to learn about this new program, hosted Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly, Judge Robert Foley and other Circuit Court administrators to discuss the program at a section meeting last month.
In forming the new docket, the court administrators closely examined the Family Division caseload. In 2013, there were approximately 24,784 cases filed, of which 15,043 were marital. Of the marital cases, 85 percent were resolved within 12 months. The Circuit Court next studied the characteristics of the remaining 15 percent that required more than 12 months to resolve and determined that they often included cases with high-value or complex assets, complex or novel legal issues, high-conflict parties, numerous pleadings and multi-day hearings.
In creating the pilot project, Kelly looked to the success of the recently established Complex Trust Docket, which formed a model for the Family Division. He said the goals are twofold: 1) to provide quicker resolution to these complex cases and 2) free up time in other dockets so other cases are heard and resolved more quickly.
The Family Division Complex Case Docket was established through Kelly’s administrative powers to reassign cases pursuant to RSA 490-F:2 and Supreme Court Rule 54(4)(h). Kelly said he established the new docket in Dover, NH, because it has a tightly controlled docket and the ability to provide quick trial dates. For example, at this time, half-day hearings are being scheduled in February 2015 and multi-day hearings are being scheduled in May 2015.
Kelly assigned Judge Foley to hear these complex cases based on his long tenure with the NH Judicial Branch and his extensive experience in this area.
During the Family Law Section event, Foley discussed several advantages to this new docket, including accessibility, and specifically expressed a willingness to make himself available for telephone conferences with the parties and counsel in hopes of reducing the volume of motions filed.
Foley said he would rather parties and counsel focus their time and efforts on substantive issues instead of filing motions over discovery issues. He also discussed a willingness to offer alternative means for trying cases, including a “roundtable method,” as long as parties and counsel were agreeable.
Foley also expressed his commitment to issuing orders as quickly as possible and under 30 days from the hearing date.
Molly Brown, the alternative dispute resolution coordinator for the New Hampshire Judicial Branch, was also present and provided more information about the ADR options available for the Complex Case Docket, including mediation, neutral evaluation, or a hybrid model.
At this time, the process for reassigning cases is done internally, usually at the request of the current hearing officer. Although attorneys cannot formally request a transfer to the Complex Case Docket, Kelly and Foley encouraged attorneys to discuss a transfer with the trial judge if they feel it would be beneficial.
While some members of the Family Law Section were concerned about travel to Dover, Kelly and Foley assured practitioners that in some circumstances, Foley would travel to the parties. Lebanon, Keene and Littleton were specifically noted during this discussion.
The goal of the court is to eventually take the program statewide.
Kysa Crusco is chair of the NH Bar Association Family Law Section. Section secretary Heidi Ames assisted with this article.