Bar members responding to a recent e-mail survey said they are extremely concerned about the functioning of the state courts. Statewide, respondents gave the court system a mediocre 5.5 rating (on a 1 to 10 scale), but individual county ratings varied widely.
In comments posted to explain their ratings, respondents cited numerous instances of delays in the handling of motions and orders, inefficiencies in scheduling, and other problems – many due to lack of staff and judges. Some comments lauded the diligence of court personnel working in difficult circumstances. Many attorneys answering the survey said the lack of computerization in the courts is an obstacle to the courts’ proper functioning.
More than 550 attorneys responded to the survey within four days of its distribution. Attorneys in Cheshire, Sullivan, Merrimack and Hillsborough North expressed the greatest level of concern about understaffing issues, and gave the courts the lowest ratings. Those four counties account for more than 50 percent of the state’s population.
The survey was distributed at the request of the Chief Justice of the NH Supreme Court to provide feedback on attorneys’ views of the current level of effectiveness of the courts. See accompanying article on page 30 on the Governor’s proposed budget as it affects the judicial branch.
The survey, sent to all active members of the NHBA, nearly 5,000 in all, asked respondents to rate the NH court system "in serving the needs of your clients and the public" on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most positive evaluation of efficient and effective functioning.
(Survey questions were intended to elicit general responses, not targeted by level of court. The identities of those responding are being kept confidential.)
Respondents from two of the smaller counties in the state – Sullivan and Cheshire – were the most concerned about the functioning of their area courts. Fifty-five percent of the Sullivan County respondents, and 30 percent of those in Cheshire County gave low ratings to the court system – 3 or below. A typical comment was: "Backlog of cases, crowded, inadequate facilities."
On the civil side, one commenter from Sullivan County wrote: "…the courts themselves are so overburdened as to be barely functioning. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the people being hurt the worst are the ones who NEED help. Those who benefit from the status quo love a clogged, inefficient judicial branch."
A number of attorneys pointed out that they bear the brunt of the criticism from clients and the public when the judicial branch is plagued by delays. "I’ve been waiting for a decision on a dispositive motion since oral argument in September," wrote one attorney. "Nothing can be done until the order is issued. Client calls constantly and I have no answers."
Similar anecdotes cropped up repeatedly in response to a posting from attorney L. Jonathan Ross, of Wiggin & Nourie in Manchester, who said he was collecting examples of the impact of strained funding of the courts for presentation to the Legislature as it considers the next state budget. Ross is a member of the NH Access to Justice Commission created last year.
Many attorneys pointed out that they don’t blame court staff for the problems their clients are experiencing. "Two years for a civil case in Superior Court is intolerable," wrote one. "The court staff are great folks – underpaid and still at it."
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