Court backlog studied by national task force

May 27 2011 - 2:29pm

CONCORD, N.H. -- Wayne and Kristy Haggie lost their children to Kristy Haggie's parents in a custody battle two years ago. While a judge ruled in June that they could begin visitations, it took four months for the couple to be reunited with their children.

The Nashua, N.H., couple had to wait, they said, because the judge's order got lost in stacks of courthouse paperwork.

"I feel let down by the courts," Wayne Haggie said during testimony before the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, which met Thursday at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. "We missed our daughter's first steps."

The American Bar Association created the task force to gather testimony from across the country on the effect of budget cuts to court systems -- and to the people who rely on those systems. The result will be a joint resolution penned by the ABA in the fall and delivered to Congress.

The hearing was the task force's second regional meeting.

In New Hampshire, $4 million in budget cuts to courts have led to layoffs and unpaid furloughs. The reductions have led to a substantial backlog of cases, particularly in the civil and family courts, said law school Dean John Broderick, the state's former chief justice.

Whether it's a divorce, traffic ticket or criminal proceeding, many people will find themselves in court this year, said Theodore Olson, task force co-chairman. And, he added, a delayed criminal case will mean one more potential criminal on the street awaiting trial. A delayed case also could mean one more innocent suspect languishing in jail while his case is pending.

Judges from across New England -- including Maine, which has the country's lowest-funded court system - all told similar stories.

The Haggies' attorney, Kirk Simoneau, called for more than commiseration.

"Where's the call to action?" Simoneau said during testimony. "Where are the protest signs? Where are the other lawyers brave enough to file lawsuits against the states and say, 'Let's get this right'? ... It's good enough to talk, but we need action."

Some solutions were suggested, including streamlining and consolidating judicial structures, making smarter use of technology, extending insurance for funds lawyers hold in trust for their clients and applying a litigation excise tax to attorney's fees. Panelists also suggested the state Legislature needs to view the judiciary as a coequal branch of government instead of a department of the state.

But, said Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, the problem may require a shift in the legal profession's culture. He said that even when the economy was good, the system favored the most educated and financially well off and did little to help the middle class and poor through the civil process.

He cited a statistic that attorneys average less than a half hour a week on pro bono work. Until lawyers redeem themselves in the public eye, the public won't fund the courts, Tribe said.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)

 

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