The New Hampshire Court System
We often talk about someone “having his or her
day in court,” but how does our state’s judicial system work?
The stated mission statement of the New Hampshire Judicial Branch
is: “to preserve the rule of the law and to protect the rights and liberties guaranteed by the United States and New
Hampshire constitutions, the courts will provide accessible, prompt, and efficient forums for the fair and independent administration
of justice, with respect for the dignity of all we serve.”
In New Hampshire, all state cases start out in a trial court -- which one depends upon the
type of case.
District Courts are often said to be New Hampshire true “community courts.” District courts are located in thirty
four cities and towns throughout the State.
The District Court deals with
the following types of cases:
Juvenile matters and certain specific family-related matters;
Civil cases in which the dispute amount does not exceed $25,000;
Minor crimes and violations.
All matters in
the District Court are decided by a judge, in what is called a “bench trial.” There are no jury trials in the
As defined by the court itself, “The Superior
Court is a statewide court of general jurisdiction and provides jury trials in civil and criminal cases. There are 11 Superior
Court sites in New Hampshire, one for each county and two in Hillsborough County.”
The New Hampshire legislature established our Superior Court
The Superior Court deals with the following types of cases:
1. Criminal matters defined as felonies.
These are major crimes such as murder, burglary, theft, drug-crimes, and aggravated felonious sexual assault. The accused
in a felony criminal matter has the right to a jury trial.
2. Civil matters, such as negligence
actions, contract cases, and real estate disputes, with a minimum claim of $1,500 in damages, where either party has opted
to be heard in Superior Court where trial by jury is available. The Superior Court has exclusive jurisdiction
over cases in which the damage claims exceed $25,000.
Family cases, also referred to as “domestic relations.” This includes a wide range of matters including
divorce, legal separation, parenting rights and responsibilities (formerly referred to as
“custody”), property division and child support, and domestic violence.
In some regions, domestic relations or family cases are handled
by a specialized court known as the “Family Division.”
4. Misdemeanor appeals from the District Court.
5. Appeals from zoning and planning board decisions.
6. Disputes over title to real estate.
When most people hear the term “Probate Court,” the first thing that probably
comes to mind is the administration of Wills, but the probate court actually has jurisdiction over a variety of cases including
trusts, wills and estates, adoptions, name changes, guardianship of incapacitated persons, guardianship of minors, termination
of parental rights, partition of property and involuntary admissions.
There are eleven Probate Court site throughout
New Hampshire – two for Hillsborough County and one is each of the other counties.
every trial court, the goal is the same – weigh the evidence and render a fair decision.
After the verdict has been handed down
in the trial court, the losing party, for cause, may appeal to a higher court. The final state court of appeal in New Hampshire
is our state Supreme Court, located in Concord. The Supreme Court is composed
of the Chief Justice and four associate justices.
The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review appeals from the State trial courts and from many State administrative
agencies. In addition, it enjoys original jurisdiction to issue a variety of writs including writs of habeas
corpus. According to the court’s own literature, the key duties of the Supreme Court are “correcting errors in
trial court proceedings, interpreting case law and statutes and the state and federal constitutions, and administration of
court system certainly plays a vital role in society, but there is also our own role as citizens to remember. As the famous
American jurist Learned Hand once said – “Liberty lies in the hearts of
men and women. When it dies there, no law and no court can save it.”