Politicians worry what effect losing court will have on city’s renters, homeowners

By Brenda Maguire

NEW BRITAIN — The state Judicial department is considering a plan to close the New Britain Housing Court, located at 20 Franklin Square, and move the cases it handles to Hartford in an effort to cut costs.

“We’re still reviewing options,” said Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, spokeswoman for the state Judicial Department. “Nothing has been decided.”

Under this plan, the filing of cases would stay in New Britain, but the trials would be held in Hartford.

The New Britain court’s jurisdiction includes New Britain, Bristol, Southington, Plainville, Plymouth, Berlin and Newington. Issues the court handles include evictions, appeals from decisions of fair rent commissions, the discrimination in the sale or rental of residential property, violations of health and safety standards, security deposits, back rent and damages

Although the plan is not yet set, local officials realize how losing the court could affect the area.

“I don’t think it’s good,” said Mayor Timothy T. Stewart. “We have a density of housing that gets referred to that court.

“It provides a mechanism to which disputes would be resolved.”

Michael J. Flynn, deputy chief clerk of the housing session at New Britain, said moving trials to Hartford will be difficult for the poor, especially for those who do not have cars.

Robert DeCosmo, president of the Connecticut Property Owners Alliance, said the lack of transportation could create a hassle for landlords as well.

“You’re traveling extra miles and I think it’s going to extend the days it takes to regain that apartment from a non-paying tenant,” he said.

In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the Hartford court saw 4,376 eviction cases, making it the busiest court in the state. Having all New Britain trials, about 2,000 a year, move there will create scheduling hassles. DeCosmo said eviction hearings, which usually take about 42 days to resolve, may be extended at least a week longer.

The state Citizens Advisory Council for Housing Matters wrote a letter to Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers and Chief Court Administrator Barbara M. Quinn urging them to keep the court in the city.

The letter argues that the Hartford court would not have a Polish language interpreter, something the New Britain Housing Court has been able to provide.

“There is a genuine legal question as to whether this transfer is permitted by statute. New Britain and Hartford are in different judicial districts, and it is not clear that two districts can be collapsed into one without a statutory change,” the letter states.

Raphael L. Podolsky, chairman of the CACHM, said “What I believe (the Judicial Department) have decided is that they had to have the filing done in New Britain but can have the trials in Hartford,” he said.

The council urges the judicial department to explore reasonable alternatives to closing the court and wishes to be part of the decision-making process.

“We think that any decision concerning this court closing should not be taken precipitously without consultation with the Advisory Council and the New Britain Housing Court bar. We think that other alternatives are possible,” the letter states.

State Rep. Tim O’Brien is working to set up a meeting with Quinn and the city’s state legislators to discuss the matter.

“It’s about access to justice,” O’Brien said. “New Britain is one of Connecticut’s largest cities and the people of this city need to be able to access the courts.”

The Judicial Department is also considering bringing employees from other courthouses to New Britain to fill the vacancies.

The current plan is to have an interim staff for the month of October until the final decision is made.

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