Small-claims mediation to begin in 13 courts
Thirteen New Hampshire district courts will soon be able to offer mediation as an option to deal with small-claims lawsuits now that Gov. John Lynch has signed legislation allowing the practice. “I think mediation is so important for our court system. It will allow us to resolve things more quickly and simply for the people of New Hampshire,” Lynch said at a signing ceremony, where he was accompanied by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick. Broderick said mediators would be on hand at the 13 courts Sept. 1 and that the program will be extended statewide by September 2006. The program will be initiated on Sept. 1 in Manchester District Court, Nashua District Court, Concord District Court, Derry District Court, Dover District Court, Rochester District Court, Laconia District Court, Lancaster District Court, Claremont/Newport District Courts, Jaffrey/Peterborough District Court, Plymouth District Court and Southern Carroll County District Court. “I hope we can expand this thought throughout this system in other courts and in other ways,” Broderick said. A $5 filing fee will pay for the program, added to the current fee a party pays to bring a small-claims lawsuit in district court. The added fee took effect July 1. In 2003, there were 18,000 small-claims cases, all of which seek a money judgment of up to $5,000. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau led the effort to create this program on Broderick’s behalf. The rate of satisfaction from cases resolved through mediation is much higher than those that are brought to trial, Nadeau said. “The solutions are longer lasting, the parties are happier,” he said. Mediation is a proven model in the state for reducing the number of lengthier, more expensive lawsuits for divorce and other financial disputes taken up in superior courts, said Nashua Democratic Sen. Joseph Foster, an attorney and prime sponsor of the bill that allows the mediation. “With mediation, you usually have two motivated parties (wanting to compromise) and that increases the chances of success,” he said. The parties to a small-claims suit voluntarily get to decide if they want to meet with a mediator before the case is heard. If agreement is not reached, it then can proceed to trial. The bill became law with little controversy, in striking contrast to another successful initiative to open a Nashua office for New Hampshire Legal Assistance. Foster and other supporters of the Nashua legal aid office had to shift their original request, which would have increased by $20 the filing fee for most cases brought in lower courts. The Legislature chose to have the Nashua legal aid office financed through existing taxes and fees within the two-year state budget. In 2003, the most recent statistics available, approximately 18,000 small claims cases were filed in New Hampshire District Courts. Legally, a small claims case is defined as any case in which the parties are seeking to recover a money judgment for an amount under $5,000.