Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why the Unified Family Court System in Maryland is a Model for Success

Last Wednesday, the Student Fellows with the University of Baltimore Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts (“CFCC”) took a “field trip” to the Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division.  The Division’s coordinator, T. Sue German gave the Student Fellows a tour of the center and explained the role the Division plays in Baltimore City.  

Justice reform in Maryland was formally launched in January of 1998 when the judges of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, headed by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, signed Rule 16-204.  Babb, Barbara A., Maryland’s Family Divisions: Sensible Justice for Families and Children, 72 Md. L. Rev. 1124 (2013).  Thus far, the focus of much of our CFCC seminar has been on looking at law reform through different lenses.  For example, Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Preventive Law together work to create a justice system that focuses on preventing future conflicts and resolving disputes in a more “client-centered” way.

The tour was an opportunity for us as students to see how these theories play a role every day in Baltimore City’s Family Division.  While much was discussed during our visit, one fact that stood out was that from July 1, 2011 – June 30, 2012 (Fiscal Year 2012), in eighty-nine percent (89%) of the cases in the Division, at least one of the litigants appeared pro se.   Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Annual Report of the Family Division Fiscal Year 2012 (Oct. 15, 2012).  Although unsure, I can imagine this is the case in most courts, as clients with family law matters are not afforded the same right to counsel as those in criminal. 

The Division has established many resources for represented and unrepresented clients and has seen tremendous success from these efforts, making Baltimore City a model for an effective “Unified  Family Court” System.  However, budget cuts impair the ability of the Division to reach its full potential.  With family law disputes making up such a large percentage of the cases in the Circuit Court system, budget cuts relate to the lack of resources available these clients.  Even in Baltimore City, where the State’s highest court has endorsed and supported the Family Division, they still struggle with budget issues.  

I pose a few reflection questions for you to think about:
  • If these efforts are proven to be successful, why are they then not being incorporated into more legal systems?
  • If justice is the goal, then why do we as a society allow so many clients to be unrepresented in family law cases, thus hindering their ability to receive the justice they deserve?
While the simplest answer is of course budget cuts, there is a lot of support showing that these models help to decrease repetitive appearances by the same clients over and over and are both more efficient and effective.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

Reflecting on the Unified Family Court Structure

As someone who has interned at a Family Law firm, it came as quite a shock to hear about the concept of a unified family court for the first time this semester. It seemed with all the benefits a unified family court could provide, one would think this type of court would be offered everywhere. A unified family court is a single court system composed of highly trained, specially assigned judges who preside over cases addressing the issues relating to children and families. This type of court implements a one case to one judge or one team type system.

With this system in place, a judge will be assigned to a family law case and handle all their related family legal needs. This allows one judge to become quite familiar with a case and family assigned to them. Instead of having several judges assigned to different issues, one judge would stay with the same family throughout the case. This prevents conflicting orders being issued by different judges. If more than one judge was assigned to a separate issue for a family, it would be possible for that court to issue an order that conflicts with another judge’s order. Overall, having this one judge to one case model is more efficient and personal for families in their time of need. 

However, with all the benefits a unified family court can offer, there are bound to be some flaws. In a divorce case for instance, one parent may feel like the judge is being biased against them. In a case like that, the parent would prefer to have a different judge assigned to several legal issues rather than being stuck with the same judge throughout their entire legal process. That parent may feel like the judge is out to get them and side with the other parent regardless of the issue. 

The main question comes down to: Do unified family courts have the potential to do more good or exacerbate possible harm?  What do you think?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Team Based Approach to Tackling Family Conflict


How The University of Baltimore’s Truancy Court Program Integrates Unified Family Court Principles Into Its Problem-Solving Team Strategy for Students and Families in Need 

This week marks the beginning of many of my classmates’ placements in CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP). Unlike several of my colleagues, I’m new to the TCP this year and have not yet had the benefit of seeing this program in action. However, as I learn more about the TCP’s team-oriented design, I can’t help but notice how closely this parallels the style adopted by Unified Family Courts.

The TCP takes a holistic approach to family problem-solving, much like a Unified Family Court system. Like Unified Family Courts, the TCP focuses not only on the legal problems a family faces but also on the underlying causes of those problems. A TCP team consists of a qualified and dedicated group of individuals from varying backgrounds who work closely with the TCP families, helping them achieve ALL of their goals (not just the legal ones). A TCP team typically consists of:
  • District or Circuit Court Judge or Master 
  • Law Student 
  • Social Worker 
  • School Principal or Administrator 
  • TCP Coordinator 
  • TCP Mentor 
  • Teacher 
  • Family Members 
This list is by no means exhaustive. Similar to a Unified Family Court, the TCP team provides the individualized attention to connect families with necessary resources. This is in sharp contrast to traditional court settings, where underlying family problems are seldom addressed.

On a more personal level, I am, by no means, a stranger to many of the challenges that our local families face. Like many of the students who participate in the TCP, I was the child of a single mom, whose resources were stretched far beyond their limits. The reality of life for us was deciding which utility would be paid and which would be cut off, or how we would put food on the table each night. I truly empathize with the needs of many Baltimore families but also understand that a family’s needs today have become even more complex than those of my childhood. Reflecting back on my own experiences reminds me of the truly life-changing “network” of people that helped my family to become what it is today. The opportunity to share that experience with another family is rewarding, to say the least.

Today’s modern parent often has a lot to contend with: childcare, transportation, behavior issues, mental health, substance abuse, financial struggles, and homelessness, to name a few. The team-based method used in Unified Family Courts and in CFCC’s TCP is an efficient mechanism for addressing those interwoven issues. It’s this team-based holistic approach to the TCP that I am most excited about as we begin a new semester. We have the opportunity to be a part of something that can be a life-changing experience for students and their families and I’m thrilled to see what the semester brings.

How do you think a team-based approach to problem-solving may help or hinder our TCP families? I’d love to read what you think below.