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Special committee to look at how NH family courts operate

Hampton Circuit Court, Hampton, New Hampshire. Dan Tuohy photo / NHPR
Dan Tuohy
The bipartisan task force will produce recommendations for reform, but its chairman stresses it is not a venue for relitigating cases.

The work of a special committee looking into New Hampshire’s family courts gets underway Tuesday, with at least four more public hearings planned to take testimony and hear concerns about the judicial system.

The New Hampshire Speaker of the House created the group at the request of Rep. Mark Pearson, a Republican from Hampstead who serves as the chair of the Children and Family Law Committee. Pearson said he and other lawmakers have long received complaints from a vocal group of constituents who disagreed with rulings in custody and child support cases, and saw no other outlet for airing their concerns.

“Quite frankly, there is way too much anger out there,” Pearson said. “And I’m not saying we will put it all to rest. I am suggesting that we take some action.”

The state’s Family Division courts handle matters related to child custody, child support payments, domestic violence and parental rights. Pearson said he spoke with leadership of the judicial branch before launching the special committee and expects the courts to offer assistance in making recommendations.

Pearson stressed, however, that the public hearings are not an avenue for upset litigants to get a new hearing.

“We will not retry the case,” he said. “We will not be interested in vague generalizations like, ‘That judge is prejudiced.’”

In 2012, the Republican-controlled New Hampshire House formed a special committee where members of the public could air grievances, including complaints involving family court decisions.

Pearson said one issue likely to be discussed in the newly formed committee is the perceived shortage of family court judges, which can lead to long wait times in some cases. He is also backing the creation of new materials for litigants unfamiliar with the court system, so they can better understand their rights, the rules of evidence in these cases, and how the courts function.

The committee will meet at least four times in May, collecting testimony from members of the public and other groups with an interest in the family court system. The 10 members — split evenly between Republicans and Democrats — all serve on either the Child and Family Law committee or the Judiciary Committee.

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Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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