Family courts have evolved

On June 15, a Massachusetts man set himself on fire and died in front of the Cheshire County Court House.
The next day a final statement from the man arrived by mail at this newspaper. Since then the statement has drawn thousands of viewers to the web. The 15-page statement referenced his discontent with several institutions and touched a nerve among fathers across the country who identified with the very personal story that Thomas J. Ball shared.

In two stories today, The Sentinel explores the voices of fathers’ rights activists and the development of the court system as it deals with the unique challenges of family-related cases.

Published June 29, 2011 12:15 p.m.

By Casey Farrar Sentinel Staff

When parents split up, it’s not only the divorce that’s painful and emotional. It’s deciding where the children should go, too, and heading to court to get that decision.

For people without personal experience in the New Hampshire judicial branch’s family division, its proceedings are often murky, unfamiliar terrain. Unlike criminal trials, family cases rarely make media headlines and are typically handled in nearly empty courtrooms.

But for others, what happens in those courtrooms is deeply personal, frequently consuming months or years of their lives and costing thousands of dollars.

One man’s frustration with the legal system was dramatically illustrated earlier this month, when Thomas Ball set himself on fire in front of the Cheshire County Court House. The 15-page suicide note he left behind claimed the courts were one of many government institutions that had failed him.

Family courts are a segment of the judiciary that has vastly evolved over the past decade to meet shifting demands, past and current court officials say.

These type of cases, including divorces, child custody proceedings, adoptions and juvenile matters, made up about 40 percent of the workload of the New Hampshire courts last year, according to court officials.

Five years ago, the statewide expansion of a two-county pilot project consolidated family-related cases from a fragmented system into a single family division. Only Cheshire County still operates under the former system, because of facilities constraints.

Later this week, the judicial landscape will shift again, when the district and probate courts and the family division merge into a circuit court system.

And along with structural changes to the court system, officials say attitudes have shifted in recent decades about how to decide who will get the children in contentious cases. Continue reading