Domestic violence task force releases recommendations for changes to NH court system

  • Members of the Judicial Branch Task Force on Domestic Violence March 8 at the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Cassidy Jensen—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald speaking at a briefing on the Judicial Branch Task Force on Domestic Violence on March 8 at the Supreme Court. Cassidy Jensen—Monitor staff

  • Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi will be nominated by Governor Chris Sununu to the New Hampshire Supreme Court on June 7, 2017, at the Executive Council meeting.

Monitor staff
Published: 3/10/2022 11:25:43 AM
Modified: 3/10/2022 11:25:11 AM

In a sweeping set of recommendations released Tuesday, a domestic violence task force suggested creating more user-friendly legal forms and more affordable legal assistance for victims seeking protection from abuse in New Hampshire courts.

The task force was created by the New Hampshire Supreme Court after a woman was shot on Nov. 15, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, 55-year-old Richard Lorman of Wilton, after a New Hampshire judge denied her a final protective order.

The woman survived the attack, and Lorman killed himself.

An internal judicial committee led by Circuit Court Judge Susan Carbon reviewed the decision by Judge Polly Hall, finding that the law had been reasonably applied in that case.

Led by New Hampshire Supreme Court Associate Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi, the task force was charged with conducting a systemic review of how the court system handles domestic violence cases, including examining the court system’s procedures and analyzing the state of current New Hampshire laws around domestic violence.

The 20-person task force, along with a five-member working group, reviewed court forms, access to legal representation and advocates for victims of domestic violence and the accessibility of appellate decisions. The task force also looked at communication between the courts and stakeholders like domestic violence advocates, law enforcement and defense attorneys.

“This is a system that was designed to be accessible and usable to victims who do not have a lawyer and do not have an advocate, and what has happened over time is it has become less accessible,” said Lyn Schollett, the executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and a task force member. “We are looking for any change as a result of this task force to make this more accessible for people who may not have an advocate.”

Members of the task force included representatives from the judicial branch, attorneys and domestic violence advocates. After holding public meetings throughout January and February, it issued a report to the New Hampshire Supreme Court on March 1.

“The task force’s purpose was to identify potential issues with regard to handling domestic violence cases in the judicial system, not necessarily to resolve those issues,” Hantz Marconi said in a briefing Tuesday. “The hope is that this report and its recommendations are a springboard to action by those working with domestic violence cases in the court system.”

Some task force recommendations were directed toward the judicial branch, while others were geared toward the executive and legislative branches. One suggestion called for a review of current statutes governing domestic violence, including potentially changing the law’s definition of “abuse,” and another advised the resurrection of the Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, which was active between 1993 and 2013.

The task force identified that there is no mechanism to ensure that domestic violence and stalking defendants have surrendered their firearms, and recommended that law enforcement be trained better on relinquishment of weapons following protective orders. In 2018 and 2019, 45% of homicides in New Hampshire involved domestic violence, according to the New Hampshire Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee.

Task force members differed on how the judicial branch could enhance transparency and accountability. “We were most divided on this topic,” Hantz Marconi said.

Under the judicial performance evaluation system, which is overseen by a committee that includes lawmakers, the executive director of the New Hampshire Public Defender and the deputy attorney general, all trial court judges and Supreme Court justices are evaluated at least once every three years. The information collected through that system is confidential under the current law.

According to the task force’s report, while some members believed the current process for evaluating judges was sufficient, others believed the annual judicial surveys were not well-publicized and reviews were conducted too infrequently. In contrast, in Colorado, surveys to provide feedback on judges are available all year-found, district commissions evaluate judges and the public can access reports on each judge online, the report said.

The task force recommended that the judicial branch seek additional funding to better collect data on civil order of protection cases. The court system publishes the number of domestic violence and stalking petitions granted by each court, but that data is not separated out by individual judges.

Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald announced Tuesday that the Judicial Branch had adopted one of the task force’s recommendations, creating a Domestic Violence Committee to be chaired by Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts Dianne Martin. That standing committee will track the implementation of the task force’s suggestions.

MacDonald praised the New Hampshire trial courts and noted the circuit court’s large case volume – 174,000 cases last year. About 5.4% are domestic violence and stalking cases.

“As a judiciary, we are ready to meet the challenges ahead and, if there are opportunities to improve, we will pursue them, thereby making New Hampshire’s strong judiciary even stronger,” MacDonald said on Tuesday.

Hantz Marconi said the task force hopes to reconvene in six months to monitor the progress of the recommendations.

“Some of these are going to take some time, some of these need funding and some more data collection that we don’t currently have the capacity to do,” she said. Other changes can be implemented more quickly, like making appellate decisions from domestic violence cases available online without victims’ identifying information.

The task force also discussed the state’s eavesdropping and wiretapping law, suggesting that lawmakers could amend the statute to allow victims of abuse to record abusers without that person’s consent. New Hampshire’s law requires both parties to consent to be recorded.

Schollett warned against unintended consequences while drafting that legislation.

“While creating additional tools can be valuable, we don’t want to create the expectation that a victim can only get a restraining order if she taped the abuse,” Schollett said.

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