It might not still be where you last saw it, thanks to the growing trend for small municipalities to share or consolidate services, including court services. Agreements to share or consolidate courts are likely to become more common, because the driver for these agreements is money – specifically, the lack thereof in government budgets, and the need to cut expenses in order to maintain services. In the current economy, efficiency is beginning to trump tradition and “hometown” spirit.
New Jersey is currently experimenting with a variety of joint and shared municipal courts, and it’s an ideal incubator. Small in area but big in population, New Jersey has over 550 separate municipalities – cities, boroughs, towns, townships, villages – and they’re close together. Most of them still have their own court; even a village with only 1,000 residents will have a courtroom, judge, and administrator. A few have been sharing court services for years, but that activity picked up significantly in 2007, when the New Jersey legislature passed the Uniform Shared Services and Consolidation Act (N.J.S.A. 40A:65-1 through C.40A:65-35). This act established a framework for the sharing of municipal services, and even set up grants and loans to help municipalities study their options. It applies to many different kinds of municipal services; a separate statute (N.J.S.A. 2B:12-1) sets out the detailed requirements for sharing of Municipal Court services.
New Jersey has two different arrangements. Joint municipal courts are formed when a group of municipalities agrees to combine all of their court resources into a single court, with the judge appointed by the state. Shared courts are formed when two or more municipalities enter into a shared-services agreement by which one provides the facilities and the other pays to use them; both courts retain their autonomy and have some flexibility to retain individual judges or have a single judge. Larger groups of municipalities tend to use the joint court model; the largest such joint court currently includes six municipalities, although there are two-municipality joint courts. The shared-services model is more common when two municipalities work together, but there is a four-municipality shared-services court.
About a quarter of New Jersey’s municipalities are currently sharing court services. An example is here. Some counties have more than others; several counties have none, while half of Sussex County’s twenty-four municipal courts and nine of Salem County’s fourteen are in joint arrangements. Some of these agreements work better than others, and municipalities looking to save money can look to different agreements with different partners. In the first half of 2010, several new combined courts were formed while others split up.
One tangible result for citizens is that there are fewer municipal courts, so you may have to travel to the next town to attend court or file papers. Given the size and closeness of New Jersey’s towns, villages, and boroughs, the trip probably won’t be very far. But another result is that court may be in a different town this year – and in yet a different town next year. If you need to go to court these days, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s still where you think it is. You can keep up with the changes in locations at CourtReference, which also provides contact information and links to the courts’ websites and other self-help resources. Courtreference’s New Jersey Court Guide even tells you which municipalities are part of which shared court.