EDITORIAL: Probate Reforms Are Working
Jan 19, 2013 (The Hartford Courant - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Connecticut's probate courts can trace their history to the 1630s, and until a couple of years ago were still clinging to many of the efficiencies of the 17th century. That, fortunately, has changed.
Reform legislation passed in 2009 and implemented after a year of planning has changed a highly local, cumbersome, nearly bankrupt system into one that is regional, efficient, more professional and less expensive.
The most noticeable change is the number of courts, which dropped from 117 (there had once been as many as 133) to 54. With fewer courts, the system is able to save $3.7 million a year, a third more than was originally expected. Since the new courts are open 40 hours a week -- in the past some of the smaller courts were open for fewer hours -- the loss of accessibility is minimized.
The reforms have included centralized financial operations, improved information technology, a uniform compensation and benefits package for court employees, and judges' salaries based on population and workload instead of the wealth of the district. Going forward, all new probate judges must be lawyers, not a requirement in the past. At present all but three of the 54 judges, who were serving before the change, are lawyers.
In other areas, the probate practice book, which governs the rules of practice and procedure, has been completely rewritten for the first time since 1974. Among other changes, the new rules reduce the administrative burdens of uncontested cases and allow judges to move contested cases more quickly. In a major initiative begun in 2004, there are now six regional children's probate courts, to deal with the vital and challenging problems related to child welfare.
In recent years the probate system was hit with a few well-publicized controversies, such as a Southington case, still tied up in Superior Court, where a conservator and a censured former probate judge apparently conspired to circumvent the will of an elderly woman who wanted to bequeath her farm to her longtime caretaker.
Continual improvements to the probate court system will help avoid such unfortunate situations in the future. Probate Court Administrator Paul J. Knierim said electronic filing and online access to probate court records and training for conservators are among the measures in the next round of improvements. What else might make it better
The number of courts is not etched in stone. It might be possible, as state gets used to the new structure, to find places where it can be further streamlined. The key is a balance between efficiency and access.
The big step would be merit appointment of judges. Probate judges are now elected every four years, per the state constitution. But the constitution is not a stone tablet -- it can and should be amended in this case, for two reasons. First, although the elective system has produced many fine judges over the years, it's reasonable to think an appointive system would increase public confidence in the system.
More important, appointments would get judges out of political fundraising. The present system tells judges not to be political but to run for office, which is inherently political. This ethical dilemma could be avoided if judges were screened by a selection committee and appointed by the governor or other authority. The current reforms have made the probate system more like the Superior Court; why not take it the next step
The probate courts are important, a major pillar of the judicial system. Judges handle matters involving children, persons with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities, will, trusts and other matters, and often meet with families at times of great stress and vulnerability. That the system shows marked improvement should be good news for all state residents.
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