Christine Stuart photo

(Updated 1:03 p.m.) For more than 300 years the probate court system in Connecticut has been able to support itself through user fees and some state funding, but four years ago at the same time the state withdrew its funding, the demand on these courts to hear cases involving children, elderly, and indigent individuals increased.

At that same time the number of cases involving estates and trusts declined, further eroding the court’s ability to cover its expenses.

In an effort to resolve the confluence of these societal changes, the Probate Court Assembly and the Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim proposed several ways to make the courts solvent again.

The plan Knierim presented to the legislature Thursday, includes the voluntary consolidation of some of the 117 courts, restructuring of judicial compensation, streamlining the court’s financial structure, and creating a probate court appellate docket.

Probably the most controversial of those proposals, which would be phased in over a four year period, is the voluntary consolidation of some of the courts.

“I think we’re really in a new era,” Knierim said. “The judges realize the gravity of the situation.”

While it’s possible some judges may find themselves out of a job if consolidation is embraced by lawmakers, at least 35 of the judges over the next six years will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70, he said.

Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, said the plan will be phased in and creates an opportunity for the courts and the public.

He said the idea of regional cooperation will be central to conversations about many proposals this year as elected officials look for ways to save money in the middle of a national financial crisis, which has driven a close to $7 billion hole in the state budget over the next three years.

Godfrey said perhaps the even bigger obstacle will be getting the legislature to appropriate $5 million to implement the plan. “Happily we don’t have to do it this year,” he said. He said the money would be needed in the second year of the biennium.

Knierim said by the end of the first four years from 2011 to 2015 the proposal will save about $2.1 million.

Here is a copy of the strategic plan. The plan is expected to save the court from running an estimated $4.1 million deficit this fiscal year. It was approved by the Probate Court Assembly 74-17 earlier this month.