In January, the Judicial Branch Innovation Commission proposed a restructuring of the District and Probate Courts and the Family Division into a new “Circuit Court” aimed at consolidating operations and streamlining the workforce. The original plan called for the changes to be made gradually over 10 years, but in the wake of the budget crisis, the Legislature stepped the deadline up to July 1. Laura Kiernan, a spokesman for the judicial system said when combined with other savings and efficiencies, the changes will result in $37 million in total cumulative savings over 10 years.
The consolidations will eliminate jobs, leaving roughly 100 of the court system’s 530 employees faced with the decision of having to retire or be laid off. Under the plan, the number of clerk positions statewide will also drop from 50 to 18.
In Laconia, just who is being laid off and who will head the new Laconia Circuit Court won’t be known until May 5 or 6. Ultimately, Diane Lane, who now serves as Clerk of the District Court, Wanda Loanes who heads the Family Division or Karen Brickner who is the Register of Probate will be named as the new clerk of the Laconia Circuit Court.
The commission’s report which is available on the Judicial Branch’s Web site, projects that through “attrition and retirements,” the mid-level management staff in those three divisions of the court system could be reduced by 50 percent over 10 years. In a further efficient and cost saving measure, the report proposes converting 20 full time positions to part-time positions that would be designated as “specialized case processors” whose work would focus on the clerical work needed to be done to move cases efficiently through the court system toward resolution.
“There’s restructuring being considered at every level of the court system,” according to Kiernan.
Superior courts in different counties, for example, may also start sharing one clerk instead of having one dedicated to them. The process is already occurring in Coos and Grafton County, a model that may be followed elsewhere.
“It isn’t as major as the restructuring the other three courts are doing,” said Judge Edwin Kelly, who is overseeing the changes. The family division, probate and district courts are going through an overhaul, he said, to bring the proportion of clerks to staff in line with a “20th century business model.” That’s where the questions begin.
Some clerks have retired to avoid being forced to reapply for a reduced number of positions.
“Most clerks and deputy clerks who are 60 or older have already submitted their paperwork,” said Jean Huntoon who has announced she is retiring after serving 37 years as clerk of what is now known as the Northern Carroll County District Court in Conway.
“A lot of historical knowledge is leaving,” Huntoon said. “They make the system work.” Meanwhile, area lawyers are predicting the switch may stall access to justice.
But Kelly disagrees.
“Anything this massive, there will be glitches,” he said, but “from the user’s point of view not much is going to change.” There is money in the budget for technological investment in things like e-filing, Kelly said, but “that is a long-range issue.” It will take about four years to institute, he said.
The personnel transitions, however, won’t have to wait.
“Much of it, if not most of it, is going to be instituted on day one,” he said. “The projected savings is a little more than $1 million on year number one.” The court system is no stranger to cost cutting. Courthouse doors were closed on a dozen Fridays in the past year, and employees forced to take unpaid furlough days in an effort to avoid layoffs.
And there have been other impacts.
Judges seats are being left vacant, and waits for cases to be adjudicated are becoming longer. While criminal and juvenile cases, which have strict time requirements, still go to court quickly, family and business disputes have been put on the back burner.
But Kelly doesn’t see the change as a negative, even though it is be put into effect sooner than was originally planned.
“It’s absolutely a good thing,” he said. By consolidating the family division, probate and district courts, judges can be deployed to hear cases from any segment, he said, “and not just the silo where they’ve been assigned.” Instead of needing three judges and three clerks, the circuit court will need one judge and one clerk. “The impact is huge when it comes to the labor required.”