Court sets Family Division standards Senior Editor Guidelines for operations in Florida’s Family Division courts have been unanimously approved by the Supreme Court. The justices also asked the committee which proposed the standards, the Family Court Steering Committee, to continue studying related issues, including how to coordinate cases involving one family appearing before more than one judge. June 1, 2001 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Court sets Family Division standards Justice Pariente Writing for the court, Justice Barbara Pariente said the goal has been to establish a division of family courts in every circuit while allowing flexibility for each circuit in running those courts to best meet local needs. The court ordered circuits to set up family divisions in 1994. It also required the circuits to submit their local rules or administrative orders creating the divisions to the court for review. That prompted the justices to commission a further study to seek a comprehensive approach to running family courts. “As the number of family court filings and post-judgment matters continues to skyrocket, we also must seek to enhance judicial productivity and conserve judicial resources,” Pariente wrote. “There will never be a `one size fits all’ model, but the recommendations that the committee submitted and that we endorse through this opinion represent a compilation of the best practices for the operation of a family court in Florida. Adoption of these recommendations will constitute a crucial step in enabling the judicial system to achieve these important goals.”The Family Court Steering Committee made 10 major recommendations, ranging from guiding principles to what types of cases family courts should handle to having a summit on family courts.Recommendations include:• Guiding principles for family courts should include that children should live in “safe and permanent homes;” family courts should focus on the best interest of the children; all persons should be treated with respect; families with cases in several courts should have them consolidated or coordinated to avoid conflicting decisions and to efficiently use court resources; parties and their attorneys should select to the extent possible the processes used to resolve their disputes; and cases should be managed efficiently while recognizing the needs of families, litigants, and issues presented in the cases.“We emphasize that our endorsement of these guiding principles in no way changes our view that the primary role of the judge is to enforce and uphold the rule of law,” Pariente wrote. “Nonetheless, we recognize that in the family court, it is not always the legal issue itself that is time-consuming or complex, but rather it is often the underlying issues such as drug abuse, domestic violence, and family dysfunction that may cause the legal dispute to become time-consuming and complicated.”The court also ordered the committee to look at incorporating recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence into the goals.• Family law courts should include all cases involving dissolution of marriage, annulment, paternity, child support, custody of and access to children, adoption, juvenile dependency and delinquency, civil domestic and repeat violence injunctions, termination of parental rights, among others. Also, judges assigned to different cases affecting the same family should be required to confer to improve efficiency and avoid inconsistent orders. The court asked the steering committee to recommend a specific rule of judicial administration to implement the latter proposal. The committee will also study how misdemeanor domestic violence cases can be included in those handled by family courts to avoid duplication.• Essential elements for family courts include coordinated case management; programs to help pro se litigants; alternative dispute resolution; ways to identify and manage domestic violence cases; guardian ad litem programs; education, counseling, and treatment programs for parents; and use of general masters and hearing officers to expedite cases.As important as meeting those goals is setting adequate funding, Pariente noted. “The failure to adequately fund the necessary services ultimately will result in the failure of the model family court concept,” the opinion said. “Without the necessary support services, the family court will be no more than a division of the circuit court that handles a specified class of cases, and the judicial system will be unable to effectively address the ever increasing and complex needs of children and families and the ever increasing caseloads.”The self-help programs are also vital, Pariente said, because 65 percent of the initial filings in domestic relations cases and 80 percent of the post-judgment filings involve at least one unrepresented litigant.• There should be coordinated case management throughout family divisions, from intake and referral, to technology to case management. Pariente wrote that case management means coordinating a case so all matters affecting a family are addressed and needed community resources are made available.• Circuit courts must implement a unified family division consistent with the model suggested by the steering committee and submit the implementing local rule or administrative order to the court by January 1, 2002. Each circuit also should have an administrative judge for the family division, and at least one family court administrator or coordinator.• Judges assigned to the family division should be committed to families and children and to the extent possible should volunteer for that task. Those judges should also serve at least three-year terms, with the opportunity to rotate out at the end of their term. Judges newly assigned to the division or who have not served there for at least two years should receive mandatory training before assignment. Continuing education for family division judges, including on nonlegal matters such as child development, mental health, and social work, should be provided.• Family court judges should have access to staff attorneys to help them carry out their duties. Quasi-judicial officers such as special masters and hearing officers should have mandatory training on family law issues, including domestic violence, dependency, and delinquency issues, and all court staff should be trained.• The court should require each circuit to establish a Family Law Advisory Group to “support and advise the family court.” The advisory group should include judges, court staff, social service workers, and community leaders. “We request that each circuit report back to this court on the progress of the Family Law Advisory Group no later than January 1, 2002, and annually thereafter, to enable this court and the committee to continue to monitor the practices in each circuit and enable the court to assess and make available information on the best practices to all of the circuits.”• Each circuit should educate the public about the resources of the family division courts, and about the limitations of the court’s authority and resources.• The steering committee should sponsor a Family Court Summit to develop plans to implement the court’s goals for the family court initiative.Pariente acknowledged that much work remains to be done on family courts, including providing enough resources to operate effectively.“Our ultimate goal remains to facilitate the resolution of disputes involving children and families in a fair, timely, effective, and cost-efficient manner,” the opinion said.The opinion can be seen online at www.flcourts.org.