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A review of N.H.’s domestic violence system highlights advocate and attorney shortage

New Hampshire Supreme Court (file photo)
File
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NHPR Staff
A panel created in the wake of a shooting last November released a slate of recommendations Tuesday for improving the domestic violence system in New Hampshire.

A sweeping review of how domestic violence cases are processed by New Hampshire courts found glaring shortages in the number of attorneys and advocates available for victims.

A 61-page report released Tuesday noted that just 13 percent of domestic violence victims who seek an order or protection hire their own attorneys or are provided with legal advocates.

“We need to expand services and deploy them better,” said New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi during a press conference.

Hantz Marconi led a task force created in December following a high-profile shooting that left a domestic violence victim with serious injuries. Less than a month prior, the woman sought an order of protection from the court detailing a pattern of threats from a former partner, but a circuit court judge denied that request.

The judge in that case, Polly Hall, was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the case highlighted potential gaps in how cases are handled in New Hampshire courts.

Hantz Marconi noted the volume of cases – nearly 5,300 domestic violence and stalking cases in 2020 alone – was stretching the ability of attorneys and domestic violence advocates to assist those seeking help.

“The answer is more pro bono lawyers and more funding for agencies such as New Hampshire Legal Assistance to hire more attorneys,” Hantz Marconi said.

The review also found existing court forms can be confusing, and may not provide judges with the information they need to make an informed ruling. Forms are also only currently available in English, placing a barrier to accessing justice for those who may not be fluent.

The report found that, overall, the state’s domestic violence protocols are “effective,” but noted “concern that the protocols are not consistently followed” across courthouses.

The panel appeared divided on whether the state should update some definitions in the domestic violence statute, including “abuse,” which some argued fails as currently worded to adequately capture the risk to victims of intimate partner violence. The panel also highlighted that many survivors told them abusers engage in “litigation abuse,” including filing meaningless court motions or appeals, “as a way of further harassing and controlling them.”

Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald issued a statement Tuesday saying the court had already conducted a preliminary review of the recommendations, and that he would launch an internal committee to monitor progress on implementing the task force’s recommendations.

“We are committed to considering the recommendations and to being transparent about the Judicial Branch’s progress,” said MacDonald.

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