Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Civil matters in New Hampshire are heard in both the Circuit and Superior Court.
The Circuit Court has three distinct divisions: family, probate, and district. See RSA 490-F:3. The family division, as the name suggests, hears domestic matters such as divorce, parenting, and domestic violence petitions. The probate division has jurisdiction over wills, trusts, estates, adoptions, name changes, and partitions to real estate. Lastly, the district division handles a wide variety of criminal and civil cases including misdemeanor and violation level offenses, small claims, and land-lord tenant matters. New Hampshire has 10 Circuits, one for each county, and there are multiple court locations per Circuit.
The Superior Court is a statewide court of general jurisdiction; it hears both civil and criminal cases and is the only court in the state to provide jury trials. There are 11 Superior Courts, one for each of the ten counties and two in the State’s most populous county.
Basis of Jurisdiction
For civil matters, the district division of the Circuit Court has original and exclusive jurisdictions over civil cases in which the damages claimed do not exceed $1,500, excluding, however, claims regarding title to real estate. RSA 502-A:14, I. All such actions are heard before a judge as there a no jury trial in the district division. Id. The district division of the Circuit Court shares concurrent jurisdiction with the Superior Court over civil actions where the damages claimed do not exceed $25,000. RSA 502-A:14, II. Any action brought in the district division in which damages claimed exceed $1,500 or title to real estate is involved, may be transferred to the Superior Court if the defendant requests a jury. RSA 502-A:15.
The Superior Court is a statewide court of general jurisdiction and provides jury trials for civil and criminal cases. The Superior Court has jurisdiction over negligence, contracts, real property rights and other civil matters with a minimum claim of $1,500 in damages in which either party requests a trial by jury. RSA 491:7; RSA 502-A:14. The Superior Court has exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases which the damage claim exceeds $25,000, petitions for injunctive relief where parties seek a court order to block action, appeal a zoning board or planning board decision, disputes over title to real estate, and petitions to enforce contracts (including those against the State). RSA 491:7; RSA 491:8.
Although more cases are brought in the Circuit Court, the Superior Court is the primary venue for larger disputes in New Hampshire.
In 2008, New Hampshire established a Business and Commercial Dispute Docket (BCDD) to handle complex business disputes. The BCDD was established to provide efficiency to the court system by making sure that large business cases do not slow down other matters in the Superior Court. Essentially, the BCDD is a special docket within the Superior Court system and is presided over by a justice of the superior court. RSA 491:7-a. The BCDD’s enacting statute provides that the presiding BCDD justice’s caseload shall be matters before the docket, however, the justice may be assigned other matters within the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. RSA 491:7-a, IV, V. Thus, the presiding judge primarily handles BCDD cases but may oversee other matters.
The BCDD has jurisdiction to hear disputes when (a) the parties have consented to the jurisdiction by agreement or stipulation; (b) at least one party is a “business entity” (a corporation, statutory trust, business trust or association, real estate investment trust, common law trust, or any other unincorporated business entity); (c) neither party is a “consumer” (an individual who purchases or leases merchandise primarily for personal, family, or household purposes); (d) if damages are sought, the amount in controversy exceeds $50,000; and (e) the claim arises from the following: (1) a breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties, fraud, misrepresentation, business tort, or statutory violation arising out of a business dealing; (2) transactions under the UCC, (3) purchase, sale, and lease of commercial real or personal property or security interest therein; (4) surety bonds; (5) franchisee/franchisor relationships and liabilities; (6) malpractice claims of non-medical professionals in connection with rendering services to a business enterprise; (7) real estate title petitions; (8) shareholder derivative actions; (9) commercial class actions; (10) commercial bank transactions; (11) actions relating to the internal governance of a business entity; (12) business insolvencies and receiverships; and (13) other complex disputes of a business or commercial nature. RSA 491:7-a.
With civil cases in the Superior Court, Superior Court Rule 32 requires all cases attend an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process such as mediation or arbitration. However, the parties may be excused if they represent by joint motion to the court that they have already engaged in formal ADR before a neutral third party prior to the suit being filed, or if either party filed a motion requesting an exemption and there is good cause for the court to grant the exemption. The Superior Court provides a list of court-approved ADR professionals (or “neutrals”) which the parties may choose from to act as a mediator or arbitrator. All neutrals on the court approved roster must be attorneys admitted to practice in New Hampshire. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 32.
The Superior Court also provides a separate Business Court Roster of court-approved ADR professional for the Business and Commercial Dispute Docket discussed above. For complex civil cases – where there is a realistic possibility the monetary damages awarded could exceed $250,000 and where a trial can reasonably be expected to last more than five trial days – the parties may agree to request a judge-conducted intensive mediation where the mediation is conducted by an active, senior active, or retired superior court justice. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 34.
With civil cases in the district division of the Circuit Court where the amount of debt or damages exceeds $5,000, the parties are required to participate in mediation. Mediation is voluntary, however, in small claims cases where the claim is $5,000 or less. Dist. Div. R. 4. Mediation
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