December 14, 2004
CONTACT: Laura Kiernan
Court Public Information Office
603-271-2646 Ext. 359
PLAN FOR STATEWIDE FAMILY DIVISION RELEASED
Conflict in Family Cases a Key Goal
CONCORD—A Supreme Court committee has recommended that 21 new Family Division sites be established around the state in the next three years to better meet the needs of New Hampshire citizens who are involved in divorce, custody and support, domestic violence and other family law matters.
In a 14-page report delivered to the Governor and legislature, the “Family Division Implementation Committee” emphasized the goal of the new process is to “move these extremely important matters through the court system in a far speedier and less adversarial way.” Effort will be made to increase the use of mediation and other conflict resolution services to encourage families to reach agreements among themselves whenever possible, using referees and case managers and avoiding contentious court hearings and potential scheduling delays. The committee plan would implement legislation passed earlier this year that makes the Family Division a permanent part of the Judicial Branch.
“Working with families in trouble is the most demanding and challenging job in the court system,” said Associate Justice Linda S. Dalianis, who chaired the Family Division Implementation Committee. “Our goal in statewide consolidation of our efforts in the Family Division is to give New Hampshire families the best opportunity to settle their differences fairly and with the least amount of conflict so they can put their distress behind them.”
A Family Division Pilot Project has been in operation at eight sites in Rockingham and Grafton counties since 1996. Legislation signed into law by Gov. Craig Benson earlier this year, allows for statewide expansion of the Family Division financed through reductions in the number of Superior Court judges from 29 to 22 following retirements and resignations.
The Committee recommended that new Family Division sites be established in Coos, Carroll and Sullivan Counties in FY 2006. Depending upon availability of facilities, Strafford and either Belknap or Merrimack Counties would establish Family Divisions next, followed by Hillsborough County. A Family Division in Cheshire County would be last to open because of facility limitations for which, the committee said, there is “urgent need for solution.”
Once the Family Division is fully established, it will comprise approximately 50 percent of the total volume of cases filed systemwide, the report said. All family related cases, and needed personnel, would be shifted from the Superior, District and Probate Courts into the Family Division. The committee said, it gave high priority to making sure that the sites selected for the new Family Division sites would be geographically accessible to the families who will use those services.
“Families in crisis require easy access to the court system, which also reduces the expense to all parties who no longer have to travel long distances to court themselves or pay their legal representatives to do so,” the report said.
Savings from unfilled Superior Court judgeships would be used for the statewide family division, which will be staffed by District and Probate Court judges and Marital Masters who are nominated by the Governor and approved by the Executive Council. Once the size of the Superior Court has been reduced, those judges would no longer hear marital cases. Juvenile and domestic violence matters would be shifted from the District Court, and some Probate matters, including guardianships over minors, some adoptions and terminations of parental rights, would all be shifted to the Family Division. Funding in proportion to those caseloads would also be shifted to the Family Division.
According to the committee report, once those reallocations of caseload, personnel and funds have taken place, and the number of Superior Court judges reduced, the net personnel cost for the statewide expansion, further reduced by available federal funding, would be $8,547 during the next budget cycle.
The committee noted it its report however that over time additional resources, including increased numbers of case managers, are likely to be necessary for improved and expeditious handling of family division cases. The report described case managers as “the most effective and positive link” between the court system and litigants who are representing themselves in family court proceedings A recent study showed that one party is unrepresented in about 70 percent of the domestic relations case in the Superior Court; in domestic violence cases now in the District Court, 97 percent of cases have one “pro se” party.
The full Judicial Branch Family Division Implementation Committee report is available at http://www.courts.state.nh.us/supreme/fdreport.htm. A related report on the findings and recommendations of the Family Law Task Force Report is available at www.nhbar.org.