Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Hawaii has four judicial districts, represented by the four major islands:
First Circuit – Consists of the island of Oahu and other islands of the State not in any other circuit.
Second Circuit – Consists of the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Molokini.
Third Circuit – Consists of the island of Hawaii.
Fifth Circuit – Consists of the islands of Kauai and Niihau.
The Fourth Circuit, which represented a portion of the island of Hawaii, was eliminated in 1943 when it merged into the Third Circuit.
Each judicial district is comprised of three separate trial courts – a district Court, family court, and a circuit court. As the name suggests, Family Court hears domestic matters, such as civil disputes concerning child custody and support and criminal matters involving children and family members. See Haw. Rev. Stat. (“HRS”) 571-11. All other matters (civil and criminal), are heard in the district and circuit courts.
Basis of Jurisdiction
For civil matters, the jurisdiction of district and circuit courts is based mostly on the amount in controversy. General district courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over all claims for $5,000 or less and have concurrent jurisdiction with the circuit courts in civil non-jury cases for amounts in controversy between $10,000 and $40,000. HRS §633-27 and §604-5. The circuit courts have exclusive jurisdiction over claims for more than $40,000. HRS § 604-5.
There are a few exceptions to the previously mentioned rule. For example, district courts have jurisdiction over all actions for summary possession or ejectment, regardless of the amount claimed for back rent and/or damages. HRS § 604-5. In addition, claims for attorneys’ fees and interest are not included when determining whether the amount in controversy falls within the district court’s jurisdiction. HRS § 604-5.
Cases in general district courts are heard by judges only not jury trials. General district court dockets are typically high-volume and consist primarily of traffic infractions and landlord-tenant disputes. The discovery process is available in district court and cases are tried quickly, often within six months of filing. As a result, general district courts are good venues for litigants who wish to resolve small to moderate disputes efficiently.
Circuit court cases are tried to a judge or jury. Circuit courts are venues for larger-value civil disputes in Hawaii.
The Intermediate Court of Appeals of Hawaii reviews District Court, Circuit Court, Family Court, and Direct Appeals from the Labor board. See https://www.courts.state.hi.us/wp-content/uploads/2016/03 /ica_workflow.jpg.
Hawaii does not have a commercial court.
Mediation parties are required to mediate by statute or court or administrative rule or referred to mediation by a court, administrative agency, or arbitrator HRS § 658H-3 Scope. With respect to mediations, a court may, on its own motion or the motion of a party, order parties to participate in mediation.
In district court cases, parties meet with mediators from the community mediation centers before their cases are heard by a judge. Residential landlord-tenant cases are usually mediated at the courthouse on the day set for trial.
In circuit court cases, parties typically pursue mediation on their own and use the Mediation Center of the Pacific or a private mediator. The Mediation Center of the Pacific’s fee for its services is determined on a case-by-case basis, as is the sharing of fees by all parties. The fees are assessed according to a sliding scale based upon the parties’ ability to pay.
The Hawaii Rules of the Circuit Courts (“HRCC”) Rule 12(b)(6) ensures complete and substantive discussions about settlement between each party’s lead counsel. The Rule states: A statement that each party, or the party’s lead counsel, conferred in person with the opposing party, or with lead counsel for each opposing party, in a good faith effort to limit all disputed issues, including outstanding discovery, and considered the feasibility of settlement and alternative dispute resolution options. A face-to-face conference is required under these rules and shall not be satisfied by a telephone conference or written correspondence. The face-to-face conference shall take place in the judicial circuit where the action is pending unless otherwise agreed by counsel and/or the parties.
In addition, HRCC Rule 12(b)(7) requires a “statement identifying any party who objects to alternative dispute resolution and the reasons for objecting. If the parties have agreed to an alternative dispute resolution process, a statement identifying the process.” A judge may order parties to participate in ADR. HRCC Rule 12.2. Alternatively, a party request a court order to participate in ADR.
For divorcing couples with cases in the Family Court of the First Circuit, a judge may assign a Volunteer Settlement Master (“VSM”) to help them solve their problems.
Settlement conferences may be used in district or circuit court cases. Retired judges usually conduct settlement conferences and follow the same process as a private mediation or federal settlement conference. For example, parties are required to provide a confidential settlement letter to the settlement conference judge in advance of the conference. Much like the mediation process, the court may refer a case on its own initiative or any party may move the court to refer their case to a judicial settlement conference.
In appellate cases, Hawaii has an appellate mediation program where participation is mandatory. There is no charge for this program, as the court’s mediators comprised of retired judges and justices, and retired and semi-retired attorneys are volunteers. See Hawaii Appellate Conference Program Rules and Hawaii Rules of Appellate Procedure Rule 33. If the parties choose a mediator that is not the court appointed mediator, the party must pay for any costs incurred. For cases excluded from the program, parties may “opt in,” or request inclusion.
Mediation is widely available at all levels of the Hawaii state courts, from small claims to the highest appellate court. In the Hawaii federal courts, mediation is offered as a voluntary process in the district and bankruptcy courts.
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