Date May 21, 2002 Contact: Laura Kiernan
Court Information Officer
271-2646 x359

NEWS ADVISORY

Court Increases Assessment for Lawyer Disciplinary Panel

CONCORD—The Supreme Court, which has supervisory authority over the New Hampshire Bar, has ordered an increase in the annual fee lawyers are assessed to fund operations of the Professional Conduct Committee, which investigates complaints against lawyers.

The court ordered that active members of the New Hampshire Bar be assessed $150 each and that inactive members be assessed $10. Payment is due by July 1, 2002. In 2001, active members of the Bar who had practiced law for more than five years were assessed $80; active lawyers with less experience were assessed $70. Inactive members were not assessed.

PCC Administrator James L. DeHart said the increase to $150 in 2002 is necessary to cover PCC expenses at their current level. Last year, at the direction of the Supreme Court, the PCC used about $100,000 in reserve funds to cover slightly more than 20 percent of its operating expenses. The availability of those reserve funds made it possible to set the assessment on lawyers at $80, the lowest rate in 10 years, DeHart said.

The PCC added a third lawyer to its staff in April and acquired some additional office space in anticipation of a future restructuring of its operations, according to DeHart. He said that the PCC needs to be restructured in order to fairly and efficiently resolve the increasingly complex complaints against lawyers.

The New Hampshire Bar Association endorsed the restructuring effort in December 2001. Bar president Peter Hutchins, a former member of the PCC, said the proposal addresses both the backlog of cases and the need to improve the process.

"Attorneys who are unfortunate enough to have a complaint filed against them want a system that can investigate the complaint in a prompt and thorough manner and not be bogged down for a year or more," Hutchins said.

The PCC is composed of unpaid volunteers, representing the bar and the public, who are appointed by the Supreme Court. The PCC holds a regular monthly meeting and individual committee members are also called upon from time to time to sit on hearing panels on other dates.

The assessment set by the Supreme Court this year will raise approximately $581,400 for PCC operations. Another $32,500 is contributed by the Supreme Court Character and Fitness Committee for certain shared expenses.

"The pressure on volunteers and the workload of the committee has gotten to the point where we cannot keep up," DeHart said. He noted that for an upcoming hearing, each of five volunteers on the hearing panel was given 750 pages of documents to read.

"The cases are taking longer and longer to resolve and that’s why we are working toward restructuring," DeHart said. The PCC has proposed adding a disciplinary counsel to present cases to hearing panels in an organized manner. Under the present system, complainants, most of whom are non-lawyers, orally present their own complaints.

"A system that is moving slowly does not benefit anyone, not respondents, not complainants, not the legal profession," DeHart said.