Justice Delayed New Hampshire Court System

Several attorneys filed suit against the State recently to try to obtain proper funding for our judicial system.  It is broken and I could not sit idly by and let it be gutted by excessive legislative budget cuts so I joined in as counsel.

Each year 230,000 court cases are filed in New Hampshire.

Certain types of court cases have specific time frames in which to act and those are set by the legislature.  For example, domestic violence cases and criminal cases require certain scheduling dates by law.  Thus, work on such cases means other cases must be delayed if judge time is lacking due to vacancies.  For instance, in 2009, there were 5,300 cases of domestic violence with hearings required between five or thirty days of filing, depending on the request.

Stalking cases were 1,470 in number, with the same time requirements.  9,600 landlord/tenant cases must be heard ten days from service of process.  Involuntary emergency admissions to the N.H. Hospital were filed 1,700 times last year and they must be heard within three days of hospitalization.

Families are also heavily affected by the lack of a judge to help decide their disputes.  7,200 juvenile cases, 10,000 new divorce or family petitions and 7,000 closed cases reopened for parenting or lack of child support issues were heard last year alone.

Judges cannot decide cases without someone processing them, scheduling them, getting orders out, and otherwise processing paperwork.  Each month thousands of orders have to go to the office of child support enforcement, various criminal law agencies, and to parties involved in marital and civil cases.

In the non-criminal area our State Constitution’s Bill of Rights (Part I, Article 14), says that everyone is entitled to a certain remedy for all injuries they may receive and that they are to obtain it “completely, and without any denial; promptly, and without delay.”

The purpose of that provision is to make civil remedies readily available and to guard against arbitrary denial of access to the courts.  It is an equal protection clause because, whether you are suing someone or being sued, you want to have your case resolved as soon as possible.

Last year there were $3.1 million of cuts out of a judicial branch budget of about $65 million, with another $2.2 million hit in May.  Concord District Court, which is a three-judge court, is now operating with one full-time judge.  Due to the reduction in personnel a form letter went out this summer canceling all civil trials.

Small claims cases were all cancelled in the Manchester District Court this summer for an indefinite period.

On July 22, Merrimack County Superior Court began closing to the public daily from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.  As of June 30, it had nearly 500 case files with pieces of mail that had yet to be docketed in the court record, with some documents dating back to March.  Another 150 trial and hearing notices had not been sent out and more than 350 files contained court orders that had not been issued.

And Hillsborough County just announced:

HILLSBOROUGH SUPERIOR COURT CLERKS TO CLOSE OFFICES

TUESDAY AND THURSDAY AFTERNOONS

Staff shortages prompt move to focus on reduction of case backlog

CONCORD, October 1 – The clerk’s office in Nashua for Hillsborough County Superior Court North and Hillsborough County Superior Court South will close at 1 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday beginning October 5 to allow uninterrupted time for processing cases and related materials.

Both clerk’s offices, which had been closed from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., will reopen at 8 a.m. daily, beginning Oct. 5 with implementation of the new Tuesday/Thursday afternoon closings.

After 1 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, no telephone or counter service will be available to lawyers, litigants or the public in the clerk’s office during those hours; the automated telephone system will be monitored so that emergency requests are addressed promptly. A “drop box” will be set up inside the courthouse at 30 Spring Street in Nashua for filing documents during the hours when the clerk’s office is closed.

As of today, the Merrimack County Superior Court, which had been closed down since last August on weekday afternoons to work on reducing the case backlog, will be open for a full day on Fridays. The clerk’s office in Concord remains closed to lawyers, litigants and the public Monday through Thursday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to allow for uninterrupted case processing.

Several other court locations statewide, faced with backlogs and staff shortages, also have limited public operating hours to allow uninterrupted time for employees to process cases.

Superior Court Chief Justice Robert J. Lynn said the schedule will be reviewed every 30 days to determine when the clerk’s office can return to routine office hours. Reductions in the court system budget have required administrators to maintain 71 full-time non-judicial vacancies, which means court locations have fewer employees on staff to carry out day to day clerical responsibilities.

These cutbacks affect all citizens who seek justice.  I will do all I can to fight for fair funding.  If you have a delay horror story, email me at info@nojustice.org

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