CONCORD, N.H.—Kristy Haggie of Manchester has been trying to get court-ordered visits with her children for months while she and her husband have tried since last year to regain custody of them from her parents.
Now she finds herself filing suit just to get a court hearing on the family dispute.
Haggie is one of five plaintiffs who filed suit in Merrimack Superior Court on Tuesday seeking to force the state to restore $4 million in judicial branch budget cuts.
Because of the cuts, the branch shut down courts one day a month, stopped scheduling small claims hearings in Manchester and significantly scaled back hearings and jury trials in civil cases. Chief Justice John Broderick said in July that civil jury trials will be "rare" in the next year.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas is the lead lawyer for the case. He said the state constitution guarantees residents the right to have civil cases remedied "promptly and without delay." He said the judicial system is a branch of state government, not just one of its agencies.
"When people can't get into court, can't get their disputes resolved in a timely manner, their rights are being taken away," Douglas said.
The lawsuit seeks not only the restoration of the funding cuts made this year, but also an order that the state adequately fund the branch in the future.
"I've never seen it this bad in 42 years, where wholesale parts of the dockets are just canceled indefinitely and there's no light at the end of the tunnel," Douglas said.
Colin Manning, spokesman for Gov. John Lynch, said the judicial branch was not as hard hit by cuts as some state agencies were and the branch could have chosen ways to cope other than curtailing jury trials. The state and treasurer Catherine Provencher are the named defendants.
Other plaintiffs in the case include a mother who alleges her child's brain injury is the result of lead paint contamination, who's had a lawsuit pending since 2001, and a widow who has had a medical malpractice trial in the death of her 39-year-old husband postponed five times. The trial is now scheduled to start next July.
Haggie and her husband, Wayne, have been waging a custody battle for their children since June 2009, when temporary custody was awarded to Kristy Haggie's parents. Haggie, who is deaf, arrived for a hearing on the custody issue only to have it canceled because the court hadn't arranged to have a sign language interpreter present.
The children's grandparents have refused to allow visits with the parents. The Haggies filed a motion June 15 of this year asking the court to make and enforce a visitation schedule, but haven't had a hearing yet.
Attorney Lawrence Vogelman stressed that the lawsuit filed Tuesday does not seek damages or special intervention for the plaintiffs named in it.
"They are not asking for money or that their cases be expedited," Vogelman said. "They are asking that the system be adequately funded."
Douglas said he expects the court to hold its first hearing on the lawsuit sometime this fall.
"We're asking for a hearing, but not on an expedited basis because the courts are too jammed to get to us," Douglas said.
Douglas said the only similar case he was aware of dates back 40 years. It was brought on behalf of the judges of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and resulted in an order that the city pay an additional $2.4 million to adequately fund the system. The order was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1971.