Bench & Bar tour seeks input on the court system

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BENNINGTON — It isn't often you see the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, the presiding judge of county Superior Court, the leaders of the state and county bar associations, other judges and local attorneys and the state's attorney in the same room.

But that's what occurred Wednesday evening at the Bennington Free Library as part of the "Bench & Bar Listening Tour," which represents the joint vision of Chief Justice Paul Reiber and Vermont Bar Association President Gary Franklin.

The idea is to invite the public in each county to share impressions of the courts and the legal system and learn what resources are or aren't available locally to assist residents with legal needs.

"It turned out we both had the same idea, which was community engagement," Reiber said. "We are trying to engage the community about the profession, about the work that lawyers do, the availability of legal services, and about the courts."

Engaging the public

Addison County was the first stop on the listening tour, which was scheduled in September in Middlebury.

Franklin, of Primmer Piper Eggleston & Cramer of Burlington, who became state bar president in July, said he was pleased the position allows him "to do things I probably wouldn't get to do," such as attend events with the chief justice and meet court and bar association leaders and others around the state.

"The information is helpful to the bar so we can respond to the needs of our members, as well as the needs of the public," Franklin said.

The bar often interacts with court system and the Legislature, he said, but less often in a general way with the public.

In addition to the Supreme Court handling appeals, each of Vermont's 14 counties has a Superior Court unit with separate divisions: civil (including small claims and other dockets); criminal court, environmental court division, and family and probate divisions. In addition, the county courts provide public record, passport and other services.

Judge William Cohen, the presiding judge in the court's Bennington unit, praised the courthouse staffs, saying they "are incredibly good at what they do; they are patient, resilient. We can't do our job without having a competent staff who keep things organized and keep our dockets, and that is across the board in every division in this county."

But a significant challenge exists, he said, in that staff numbers and resources have been shrinking "on all staffs," while there are "high expectations on all of us as dockets are expanding."

Effects of addiction

For the past five years, Reiber said, the addiction crisis has spread negative effects throughout the court system.

"We noticed a substantial increase in criminal cases" related to addiction, he said, "and then it manifested itself in the family court docket ... We have really struggled to keep up with all of the child protective cases coming in the door."

The impact has been significant on Family Court, Reiber said, centered on a surge of those cases, which he said involve children "who are neglected more than anything else."

In addition, appeals in termination of parental rights cases "have gone up dramatically," he said.

Drug-related issues also affect the Probate Court, landlord-tenant and other dockets of the system, the officials said.

There also is an increased need for legal representation in Family Court, officials said, at the same time fewer young lawyers are working in that court unless they are doing pro bono work, because many clients have a limited ability to pay for representation.

Attorney John Lamson, who worked for many years with Have Justice Will Travel, which provides free legal and related services, said he sees "a huge gap in family law" between those who have an attorney helping with their divorce or other family cases and those going into court without a lawyer.

Many people fall within an income range where they don't qualify for free legal assistance and are reluctant to pay for an attorney, he said.

Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage agreed, saying her husband, Brian Marthage, has a family law practice "and there is a huge shortage."

She added, "The big firms are not hiring family law specialists," leaving an inadequate number of lawyers in the area in private practice.

Informing the public

That discussion led to a focus on pro bono services and providing basic advice for residents seeking to represent themselves in an uncontested divorce or other situation.

Bennington County Probate Judge D. Justine Scanlon cited the "inordinate amount of time" spent by residents and those assisting them in filing out required forms. She advocated simplifying that process where possible, especially for those forms available online.

Scanlon and county Assistant Judge Wesley Mook said it also shouldn't be assumed that most Vermonters are computer literate and able to deal with online forms, or have access to a computer.

Among ideas were holding periodic legal clinics on topics like the process of having an old conviction expunged from a person's record or how to weave through a court action while representing one's self or with limited assistance from an attorney.

Many years ago, Scanlon said, there were "People's Law School" classes held in the Bennington area with information provided by local attorneys on various topics.

"I think it would be more effective in a clinic setting versus a lecture setting," said Sarah Wilson, president of the Bennington County Bar Association.

It was also suggested that recording attorneys or others discussing legal topics would be a more effective way to spread that information statewide, and a method of easily focusing on multiple issues.

Therese Corsones, executive director of the Vermont Bar Association, said that topic currently is being explored with officials at Vermont Law School, with the hope of involving the students.

Lon McClintock, a past president of the local bar, said his experience as a select board member in Shaftsbury showed him the impact local cable access networks can have in spreading information via recorded programs.

"Once the content is produced, local access networks are always looking for meaningful content," he said.

Mook said the option of mediation should not be overlooked as a means of resolving disputes and lessening the burden on court dockets. Formal mediation services have "kind of gone by the wayside [in recent years]," he said.

On the subject of pro bono work by local attorneys, Corsones said the state bar is establishing a program for retired lawyers willing to participate that could provide malpractice insurance coverage and a reduced-rate emeritus licensing status.

Wilson said the local bar also is beginning an initiative for retired lawyers who want to do pro bono work.

Also attending the session were Laurie Canty, Regional Superior Court clerk for Addison, Bennington and Rutland court units; former Bennington Unit Presiding Judge David Howard, who retired in March; and Superior Court Judges John Valente and David Barra.

Anyone who wishes to comment on aspects of the courts or legal system should contact Corsones at tocorsones@vtbar.org.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.






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