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Court restructuring consolidates district, family and probate courts

New structure eliminates 67 positions, saves $1.4 million a year

July 14, 2011
COUNTY — The New Hampshire Circuit Court began operating July 1, merging the District and Probate Courts and the Family Division into a single, streamlined system designed to improve services to both the public and the Bar while producing significant cost savings.

The merger is the most significant overhaul of the New Hampshire Judicial Branch since the early 1980s, when the legislature unified all the state courts under a single administrative and financial structure.

The Supreme Court has named Edwin W. Kelly to serve as Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court, which will now handle 90 percent of all cases filed in the state court system. Kelly has served for 20 years as Administrative Judge of the District Court and seven years in that same capacity for the Family Division. David D. King, the Administrative Judge of the Probate Court since 2007, will become Deputy Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court. King had been a probate court judge in Coos County for 17 years before he became Administrative Judge.

The Judicial Branch Innovation Commission, working closely with Judges Kelly and King, proposed the new Circuit Court model in a report issued in January. A 10-year implementation plan, to be carried out through retirements and attrition, was dramatically accelerated after the state lawmakers said that savings had to be realized by July 1, the beginning of FY 12-13 budget biennium. Estimates are that the management restructuring built into the new Circuit Court will result in $1.4 million in savings annually. Legislation establishing the Circuit Court (HB 609) was signed by Gov. John Lynch on May 16.

The restructuring reduced the number of mid-level management positions from 118 to 51. A Circuit Court call center will open by January 2012. The call center will be expected to resolve 70 percent of the expected 50,000 calls per month coming in from the public, freeing courthouse clerical staff to focus on case-processing. In addition, the circuit court will be hiring 20 part-time employees to work off-hours processing cases. These changes will make operations more efficient but will have little effect on day to day interactions between the court staff and members of the public and the Bar.

On July 1, jurisdictions for district, probate and family divisions of the Circuit Court will be the same as the existing District and Probate Courts and Family Division. Court locations, addresses, telephone numbers, rules, filing procedures and scheduling will also remain the same in what will now be known as the District, Probate and Family Divisions of the Circuit Court.

"Our aim is that the transition be as seamless as possible, so that litigants and members of the Bar sense little or no disruption in their interactions with the Circuit Court," New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis said. "Over time, we expect that this reorganization will result in increased efficiencies and improved access to justice for the citizens of New Hampshire," the Chief Justice said.

Probate cases will continue to be filed in the county seat, where probate matters are handled now, but the administrative duties that have been carried out by Probate Registers will be the responsibility of the newly appointed Circuit Court clerks.

All forms related to District, Probate and Family procedures will be renamed for the Circuit Court. As of July 1, the Judicial Branch website will have a new "Circuit Court" link with pages for the District, Probate and Family Divisions.

"These are structural changes. The delivery and location of services will be the same," said Circuit Court administrator Paula Hurley. In addition to Hurley, the Circuit Court Administrators are Gina Apicelli; Patrick Ryan; and Brigette Siff Holmes all of whom have served as administrators either in the District Court or Family Division. The current Probate court administrator, Marty Wagner, who was integral to development of the Circuit Court, retired at the end of June.

There will be 10 Circuits, one for each of the state's counties. Each circuit will have at least one Circuit Court clerk. Some of the state's largest counties will have more than one Circuit Court clerk assigned to manage divisions in more than one city or town. The locations of the district, family and probate divisions will now become circuit court locations.

In Cheshire County, the marital division will continue to operate as part of the Cheshire County Superior Court; in all other counties, the Circuit Court Family Division will operate at the same locations as the current Family Division.

Judges who now come under the Circuit Court will continue to preside over the same types of cases for which they were appointed prior to the July 1 merger. During the upcoming weeks, the Circuit Court Administrative judges will consider requests from judges who want to be certified by the Supreme Court to sit in divisions other than those to which they were previously appointed. The certification process is expected to be similar to the process by which the Supreme Court has certified judges to sit in the Family Division for the past several years. For example, a Probate Court judge will continue to hear probate cases, but could also ask to be certified to preside in the Circuit Court District Division; a District Division judge could ask to be certified to hear probate division matters. After July 1, newly appointed Circuit Court judges will be expected to accept assignments to any division of the Circuit Court.

In Carroll County, the courts in Conway and Ossipee will be in the Third Circuit with both maintaining family and criminal divisions and the probate court continuing in Ossipee.

Questions about the Circuit Court should be directed to the circuit court clerks or to Administrator Gina Apicelli at gapicelli@courts.state.nh.us.

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