Wednesday, December 21, 2005

It's like this across the board:

The below from the Hartford Courant:

Changes Urged In Probate Courts
Panel Sees Variations In Service, Training
December 21, 2005 By KIM MARTINEAU, Courant Staff Writer

A state legislative investigation has found Connecticut's probate court system wasteful and lacking consistent service and professionalism.

Investigators have recommended that the state consolidate its 123 probate courts and require all probate judges to be trained in the law and sit full time, to eliminate conflict with their outside jobs.

A group of lawmakers, the Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee, ordered the investigation in April, after a sweeping plan proposed by the state probate administrator to restructure the system failed to go anywhere.

The results of the investigation were made public Tuesday, and lawmakers briefly discussed the report's findings. They then put the report aside until next month, when they may vote on whether to adopt its controversial recommendations.

A Yale University law professor who testified last fall before the committee has called Connecticut probate a "national scandal."

Other outsiders have been almost as harsh."It's an extremely inefficient system," Peter Costas, a Hartford lawyer who like many of those willing to criticize probate openly does not make a living in trusts and estates, said on Tuesday, following release of the report.

"The probate court is a sacred cow. It's a lot of patronage. You have people who have very good part-time jobs for being active in their political party."Most people go to probate court to settle the estates of family members, but the courts also handle commitments of people with mental illness, termination of parental rights and other matters involving children and the elderly. The court system pays for itself, largely through fees the courts charge for handling estate matters.

Connecticut has one of the oldest probate systems in the country and, after Georgia, boasts possibly the largest number of judges. Probate judges are elected to four-year terms and the only qualification required is that they live in the district they serve. About a quarter of the state's 123 probate judges do not have law degrees and moonlight in such varied professions as martial arts instructor, waitress and orthopedic surgeon.

The report recommends consolidating to cut expenses and improve service to the public. Though the courts are informal and often easy to use, their hours vary widely. With some judges proficient in the law and others not, professionalism also varies.Disparity in workload and salary is also a problem, and the report recommends that an independent consultant re-evaluate compensation. The analyst who wrote the report, Michelle Castillo, estimated that the Hartford probate judge alone carries the same workload as the 17 judges who cover all of Windham and Tolland counties.

Though many judges work only one or two days a week they receive full state health benefits, as do court employees who work more than 20 hours a week.

Salaries for judges are set by an arcane formula that weighs their workload against the size of their district and other factors. Though Hartford Probate Judge Robert Killian Jr. made nearly $94,000 last year, the most a probate judge can make, his court handles the most work making it the most cost-efficient in the state, the report found. Norfolk Judge Linda Riiska, in contrast, made $32,000, but her court is open just six hours a week, making her court the least cost-efficient, the report found.Significantly, the investigation validated the probate system's shaky financial footing.

Three courts - Bridgeport, West Haven and Norfolk - are subsidized by the other probate courts because they run at a loss, the report found. But when health insurance costs are factored into each court's expenses, about a third of the courts, 41 of them, run at a deficit. Faced with soaring health insurance costs, the state probate administrator, Judge James Lawlor, proposed a plan last year that would have effectively created regional probate courts, to save money. The legislature failed to act on the plan amid widespread complaints, many of them from small-town judges whose jobs were placed in jeopardy.

Some judges accused Lawlor of exaggerating the probate system's financial shape as an excuse to abolish the small-town courts. But the report confirms Lawlor's basic concerns, estimating the system will run into financial problems within the next five years.

The report was, however, critical of the growth in Lawlor's own budget and called for the administrator to submit an itemized budget for the regional children's courts he has created. It also recommended that the state Department of Children and Families and other agencies that use the children's courts help pay for them.

The committee will meet again on Jan. 19. Most of the recommendations, if adopted, would need the approval of the state legislature before they took effect.

To comment on this story, or to request a correction click here to send a message to Karen Hunter, The Courant's reader representative. Click here to read Karen's daily Weblog.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system. Health insurance is a major aspect to many.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 3:20:00 AM  

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