Bar News - October 19, 2016
Opinion: NH e-Court Project: Views from the Circuit Court Bench
By: Hon. David D. King
The NH Judicial Branch hosts demonstration/e-filing tip sessions at the NH Bar Center from 2-4 p.m. on Wednesday Oct. 26 and Nov. 29.
The creation of the New Hampshire e-Court system has been a more complex and daunting task than many of us thought it might be when we started down this road. We are extremely gratified to now see that the hard work of our NH e-Court Project implementation team has resulted in more than 20,000 cases electronically filed and that the public is now reaping the benefit of the time and effort that has gone into this project over the past few years.
With e-filing much of the case work is now processed centrally, allowing court staff to focus on customer service and processing those cases that have not yet transitioned to e-filing. To date, the central staff has received or sent over 150,000 electronic “envelopes” with pleadings, court notices and orders. Judges in small claims and guardianship cases issue orders electronically, often right from the bench.
Several weeks ago I had occasion to sit on back-to-back guardianship hearings, one older case with a paper file, and one filed electronically. The differences were obvious. In the electronically filed case, the petitions were more complete and were easier for me to locate the pertinent issues. In addition, I was able to tell the parties in the e-filed case that their order would be in their email inbox when they got home, while the paper file had to go back to the clerk’s office for processing and the usual back and forth with paper draft orders until it was ready to be signed and mailed. Self-represented petitioners have told me that they were able to complete their guardianship petition at home, using the guided interview. Lawyers are reporting that they are feeling more comfortable with the filing process. In the early days, some expressed doubts about whether their pleadings had been filed correctly or received by the court. Those doubts seem to be waning as lawyers are involved in more e-filed cases.
Several of my colleagues recently shared their perspectives:
• Judge Jack Yazinski – At first, those of us not of the computer generation found the introduction of e-filings to be daunting. Before long, and with minimal effort, utilizing the system became second nature. Small claim cases, the first e-filed cases, are flowing smoothly. I do not have to decipher handwriting or fumble through a file to find pleadings. All pleadings are readily and quickly accessible. The click of the mouse results in a merged final order. The benefits of the system are even more pronounced in guardianship cases. Pleadings are clear and concise. The system insures that all parties receive notice of hearings and copies of pleadings. I am able to issue a final order within minutes of ending a hearing using the e-forms. The system saves space and it saves staff time. Of course, the system also provides an environmental benefit that should not be overlooked.
• Judge Susan Ashley – Electronic filing has changed our “normal” ways of doing things at the court, and it can be hard to learn different habits. But the more I use the system, the more efficient I am in navigating to the information I need, and I appreciate how quickly I can produce orders following hearings.
• Judge Tom Rappa – As with all new systems, the current iteration is not without its quirks and challenges. However, with a little training, practice and patience the system works and delivers most of the advantages that we had hoped to realize by entering this new era of case processing.
• Judge Mark Weaver – I look at this process as going one of two ways. You can either approach it from the viewpoint of denial, recognition, and then acceptance or you have to just commit and do it. My own approach is similar to going into a cold lake in the summer – at some point you just have to jump in. The initial feeling is a change to everything you are used to feeling, but once you stay in for a while, you do not want to get out of the water.
While we strive to improve what we have in place in small claims and guardianship, preparations are well underway for the next e-filed case type, estates. Having these cases filed electronically will allow us to centralize processing, which will provide consistency and efficiency. With e-filing, the time to disposition of small claims cases has been reduced almost 20 percent across the state, guardianship matters are getting processed and scheduled more quickly and we fully expect the time to get administrators appointed in estates will be similarly reduced.
With input from court staff, judges, New Hampshire Bar members and their probate paralegals, we have streamlined some of the processes on the front end of the estate process, which will make filing petitions for estate administration easier for both attorneys as well as self-represented parties. The anticipated go-live month for estates on e-filing is now next May. As that date nears, we will offer a detailed CLE about the changes to the estate filing process. In addition, we are working on developing a way to allow lawyers and parties to view their cases remotely without having to go to the courthouse kiosks and efforts are underway to install more responsive software so that viewing multiple pleadings while on the bench will be more efficient.
If you have recently started e-filing or if you are about to get started, I encourage you to attend one of the monthly demonstration sessions at the NH Bar Center. These sessions have been well received. They give you and your office staff the opportunity to watch and ask questions about the electronic filing process to ease their transition to e-filing.
Hon. David D. King
Hon. David King is deputy chief administrative judge of the NH Circuit Court.