Unified family court petition filed

first_imgThis proposal brings statewide uniformity in the approach that circuits will use in implementing unified family court. At the same time, it permits a circuit that has good cause to deviate from that approach to demonstrate to the Court another plan to accomplish unified family court objectives. requiring circuits that find it necessary to depart from “one family one judge” to submit an alternative plan to the Court, circuits will be able to employ policies that will equally coordinate judicial efforts for the benefit of the families and children in their courts but will also be held accountable for carrying out their policies. Elements of Unified Family Court Also in Family Courts IV, this Court adopted twelve essential elements for a model family court. Family Courts IV at 522-524. In the interim, legislation to implement Revision 7 passed which enumerated fourteen “elements” for state court funding. Chapter 2003-402, Laws of Florida. Although there is some common language between the two, the elements listed and their definitions are not the same. The Steering Committee recommends that the Court adopt and further articulate the fundamental components of Florida’s unified family courts in order that the trial courts may accomplish the goal of providing a comprehensive approach to cases involving children and families. Regardless of whether the Court provides a specific program or service, all fundamental components require adequate funding. Florida’s unified family courts should have all of the following: 1) Judges, magistrates, and hearing officers so that the court may offer adequate hearing time to resolve disputes promptly. 2) The means to provide meaningful access to the courts and court-ordered programs regardless of whether the parties have legal representation. Procedures, facilities, financial requirements, and English fluency/literacy should not serve as barriers. 3) Sufficient case management staff and adequate technology to accomplish management and coordination of all related cases involving the same family. Case management must include: a. Intake and assistance to self-represented parties, including forms and information prior to filing, and review of initial pleadings to ensure that the necessary forms are filed. For example, as the Clerk is required to provide forms for domestic violence petition to parties, the Clerk must also provide a UCCJEA affidavit when children are involved and a financial affidavit when spousal or child support is requested. Initial pleadings should be checked to ensure that all forms are complete before the case is sent to the judge so that prompt and responsive rulings can be made and to assure judicial efficiency. b. Early evaluation of cases for differentiated case processing tracks and proper assignment. For example, cases involving domestic violence should be identified and managed in a manner that ensures safety, is sensitive to the special dynamics involved, and permits timely disposition of identified domestic violence issues. c. Case monitoring, tracking, and scheduling, to ensure timely processing and disposition and avoid entry of inconsistent orders or duplicative hearings. d. Coordination of service referrals to appropriate court-based and community services and educational programs, and monitoring compliance with court orders requiring the parties’ participation. e. Coordination with the clerk to identify and coordinate open and closed cases involving the same family members and to review files to assure that they are complete and cases are ready for hearing or trial. 4) Alternative dispute resolution processes must be readily available at all stages of the case, for all or selected issues, to minimize conflict and to reduce the need for adversarial hearings and the resulting stress on family members. 5) Adequate representation of the children involved, whether that requires the appointment of counsel, a guardian ad litem, or attorney ad litem. 6) Access to evaluations concerning issues affecting the family, including custody and visitation investigations, mental health assessments, Batterers Intervention compliance, and drug/alcohol testing and assessments. 7) A FLAG (Family Law Advisory Group) shall be established/maintained to support and improve the unified family court and provide the means for the service needs of families to be recognized and met through collaboration with the community and external resources. 8) Adequate security personnel, equipment, and procedures to ensure that unified family court facilities are safe for judges, magistrates/hearing officers, court staff, parties, children, lawyers, and the public. 9) Educational and professional development opportunities for judges, general magistrates, hearing officers, and court staff, which focus upon issues that arise in family-related conflict and directly affect children, such as: substantive and procedural family law, principles of child development, family systems, mental health, substance abuse, behavioral sciences, mediation, family violence, sexual abuse, and substantive information about programs available in the community which address the basic needs of children and families, including economic assistance, health care programs, literacy, public transportation, substance abuse programs, emergency shelters, and outreach programs. 10) Technology and related training to use case management systems and a unique identifier for each family member for case coordination, to provide teleconferencing and appearance of witnesses by electronic means, and to create a permanent electronic or stenographic court record of all family court proceedings. Coordination of Unified Family Court Cases with Non-Family Law Cases Involving the Same Family Questions have arisen about the coordination of a family’s multiple cases involving its members. Judges can best serve families when they possess as much case-related information as possible. This information allows judges to draft more comprehensive rulings to reduce the possibility of conflicting or incomplete orders. Obviously, judges’ rulings must be based upon the record before them. Thus there is conflict between judges being fully informed about every case involving the same family and ensuring strict adherence to the principle that the record be the exclusive basis of a court’s rulings. Judges must balance parties’ due process rights with gathering the necessary information for decision-making. Therefore, by a vote of 19-0: The Steering Committee requests a clarification of the ability of judges to confer with each other about pending cases. When families are also involved in criminal or other civil cases not included in the traditional jurisdiction of the unified family court, judges should be informed of those cases so that they may be able to coordinate those cases to the extent legally permissible, and use the information to ensure that consistent rulings are made, and the safety of litigants and interests of children are served. Unified family court petition filed Although the Steering Committee does not at this time make a specific recommendation regarding the assignment and rotation of circuit judges in the family division, the Steering Committee robustly debated the issue and a majority of those members present were in favor of an amendment to the Rules of Judicial Administration. The Steering Committee revisited the recommendations in Family Courts IV and acknowledged that this issue goes beyond assignment and rotation for family matters. Chief judges face a myriad of very complex factors that can affect assignment decision-making for all divisions of court. Some members of the public perceive that new or inadequately experienced judges are disproportionately assigned to the family division. Regardless of the actual number of judges so assigned, the Steering Committee is mindful of the centrality of this issue to the future of Florida’s courts. The Steering Committee has had the benefit of many previous recommendations as well as this Court’s opinions in working on unified family court and seeks final resolution by this Court on the issues raised herein to ensure efficient justice for all Floridians. WHEREFORE, the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court respectfully requests that this Court enter an opinion adopting the unified family court recommendations contained herein. (Footnotes) 1 The Commission on Family Courts had recommended that “[t]he jurisdiction of the family division should include dissolution of marriage, simplified dissolution of marriage, child custody and support, URESA, domestic violence, name changes, adoptions, paternity suits, [and] modification proceedings; and each circuit should consider inclusion of juvenile dependency and delinquency matters at least for administrative purposes. In re: Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 588 So. 2d 586, 587 (Fla. 1991)(first brackets supplied). 2 The Eleventh Judicial Circuit has provided valuable input to the Court in this regard. See Family Courts I at 590; Family Courts III at 180-181; and Family Courts IV at 525, 531-532. 3 This includes at a minimum, those cases enumerated in recommendation #2 and adopted by the Supreme Court in Family Courts IV as well as those set forth in the proposed amendment to Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.085(d), now under consideration by the Court. For. pdf version of petition visit: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/clerk/comments/2005/05-1287_petition.pdfThe Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court (Steering Committee) has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to adopt its recommendations concerning the following aspects of unified family court: 1) the need for one administrative family law judge; 2) “one family one judge” system; 3) clarification of the elements of unified family court; and 4) coordination of unified family court cases with non-family law cases involving the same family. The court invites all interested persons to comment on the Steering Committee’s recommendations, which are reproduced in full below, as well as online at www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/proposed.shtml. An original and nine paper copies of all comments must be filed with the court on or before October 5, with a certificate of service verifying that a copy has been served on the committee chair, Judge Robert Morris, 14250 49th Street North, Clearwater 33762, as well as a separate request for oral argument if the person filing the comment wishes to participate in oral argument, which may be scheduled in this case. Electronic copies of all comments also must be filed in accordance with the Court’s Administrative Order In Re: Mandatory Submission of Electronic Copies of Documents, Fla. Admin. Order No. AOSC04-84 (Sept. 13, 2004). IN THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA IN RE: PETITION OF THE STEERING COMMITTEE ON FAMILIES AND CHILDREN IN THE COURT TO ADOPT RECOMMENDATIONS FOR UNIFIED FAMILY COURT, CASE NO. SC05-1287 PETITION OF THE STEERING COMMITTEE ON FAMILIES AND CHILDREN IN THE COURT TO ADOPT RECOMMENDATIONS FOR UNIFIED FAMILY COURT The Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court (“Steering Committee), by and through its chair, Circuit Judge Robert Morris, submits this Petition of the Steering Committee pursuant to this Court’s August 25, 2004 Administrative Order AOSC04-25 (hereinafter “Administrative Order”). The current Steering Committee members have drawn upon their own collective experience as well as the accomplishments of the former family court committees. The efforts of these committees focus exclusively on improving the way Florida’s courts respond to the complex needs of children and families. The recommendations contained in this petition build upon earlier accomplishments and seek to end any remaining ambiguities surrounding unified family court. Since 1991, the vanguard of the judicial branch’s efforts to improve family and juvenile courts 1 h as been through the establishment and growth of unified family courts, which can be traced to this Court’s seminal decision in In re: Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 588 So. 2d 586 (Fla. 1991)(“ Family Courts I ”). The Commission was established by the legislature in chapter 90-273, Laws of Florida. That legislation directed the Commission to: (1) develop specific guidelines for implementation of a family law division within each judicial circuit; (2) provide recommendations for statutory, rule and organizational changes; and (3) recommend necessary support services. Id. at 587. Two and a half years later, this Court wrote “to further refine and implement the family court divisions of the circuit courts initially established by [Family Courts I]. ” In re: Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 633 So. 2d 14, 16 (Fla. 1994)(“ Family Courts II ”). A key concept of the unified family court contemplated by Family Courts II was to have just one judge address all of the legal needs of a family. A one family one judge system provides a comprehensive and efficient way for courts to address the multiple legal issues facing a family. In Family Courts II, the Court acknowledged that [a]lthough it would be preferable to have one judge decide all matters pertaining to the same family, we recognize it may not yet be feasible. However, in all instances, all judges handling some aspects of a family’s litigation and not others must be made aware of all pending matters in the courts that involve all family members. Id. at 17 n.2. In 1994, legislative changes related to the handling of violations of domestic violence injunctions prompted this Court “to clarify issues regarding the implementation and operation of family law divisions in the circuit courts of this State.” In re: Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 646 So. 2d 178, 179 (Fla. 1994)(“ Family Courts III ”). This Court also “approve[d] the local rules and administrative orders establishing family law divisions in each of the circuits.. . . ” Id. at 182. Most recently, this Court heard from the successor to the Commission, the Family Court Steering Committee, which submitted a report with carefully considered recommendations that resulted in the Supreme Court’s opinion in In re: Report of the Family Court Steering Committee, 794 So. 2d 518 (Fla. 2001)(“ Family Courts IV ”). After that opinion, the state court system was then transformed by implementation of the voters’ will as embodied by Revision 7 to Article V of the Florida Constitution. As a result, court support resources such as magistrates, case managers, and mediation for family cases are now more available statewide. In the four years since this Court issued its opinion in Family Courts IV, the unified family court model has been operational in sufficiently diverse areas to demonstrate that it is effective statewide and that it achieves the stated goal of a model family court. However, trial courts have suggested that Family Courts IV does not provide sufficiently specific directions or mandates on certain key components of the model. This petition asks the Court to revisit certain issues, to clarify other aspects, and to help fully realize unified family court at the trial level. Although application of the Family Courts IV opinion has not been without challenge, the judges who practice the principles of the unified family court system have overcome any initial wariness and whole-heartedly embrace unified family court as the most effective and efficient means of resolving family matters. Indeed, they do not want to “go back” to their pre-existing systems. Thus, the continuing beneficial practices employed across the state have increased confidence in the statewide development and improvement of unified family court. Application of the principles and practices advanced in Family Courts IV has varied throughout the state. While all circuits strive to enhance the way in which they handle the cases involving children and families, some have achieved greater success than others in “creating a fully integrated, comprehensive approach to handling all cases involving children and families.. . . ” See Family Courts II at 17. For these reasons, the purpose of this petition is to request this Court to rule on several important issues the Committee considers essential for trial courts to realize the Court’s articulated vision. The Steering Committee hereby submits its recommendations on the following aspects of unified family court: 1) the need for one administrative family law judge; 2) “one family one judge”; 3) clarification of the elements of unified family court; and 4) coordination of unified family court cases with non-family law cases involving the same family. Administrative Family Law Judge Without a specific directive, institutional change is difficult. In Family Courts IV, the Supreme Court considered, inter alia, the recommendation that it “require the chief judge of each circuit to appoint an administrative family law judge for the circuit and give the administrative judge authority to oversee and coordinate the circuit’s family initiative.” Family Courts IV at 531. Nonetheless, the Court “decline[d] to mandate the appointment of an administrative family division judge. Instead, we leave it to each circuit to devise a plan for coordination of cases within the family division to achieve the goals of the model family court.” Id. at 532. Unfortunately, some circuits now feel that they have complied with this Court’s requirements merely by writing a plan. Again, we recognize that institutional change is difficult, however, every available alternative short of a mandate has now been attempted, including site visits, conferences, judicial education programs and seminars, and personal encouragement. Not all circuits, however, are complying with the spirit of this Court’s goal. Therefore, the Court must now mandate that each circuit appoint one administrative family law judge. At its May 2005 meeting, Steering Committee members recognized the variations of population and geography amongst and within Florida’s twenty judicial circuits. 2 C ertainly it is understandable that the individual needs of twenty different judicial circuits merit some degree of variation in their respective development of unified family court. More importantly, however, distinctions between circuits are less significant than the public need for the effective and efficient handling of family cases. The quest to serve Florida’s families more efficiently is too important to be undermined by individual circuit’s self-perceived inabilities to comply. All judicial circuits, regardless of population or size, must adopt the unified family court model. Furthermore, the circuits which have accomplished the most have done so under the guidance of a single administrative family law judge, who has the authority to supervise and coordinate unified family court efforts for the entire circuit. As a result, the Steering Committee, by a vote of 22-0, reiterates the Family Court Steering Committee’s recommendation 5(b) and unanimously requests that this Court direct that: The chief judge of each circuit shall appoint one administrative family law judge for the entire circuit who shall have the authority to supervise and coordinate the circuit’s unified family court initiative. The chief judge may appoint associate administrative judges for individual counties or specialized divisions including, but not limited to, domestic relations, domestic violence, juvenile dependency, and juvenile delinquency, and those judges shall report to the administrative family law judge. All judges shall be responsible to the chief judge, shall have the power and duty to carry out the responsibilities assigned by the chief judge, and shall serve in their administrative capacities at the pleasure of the chief judge. See also Family Courts IV at 531. This proposal provides flexibility to chief judges, who still retain oversight over all judges in their circuit, to use associate administrative judges to accommodate their circuit’s distinctive needs while simultaneously imposing a single administrative judge to provide judicial leadership to put into practice unified family court objectives, whether in a single county or a multi-county judicial circuit. This administrative structure brings the proper focus to the parties we serve and what they experience when coming to the courthouse. One recent demonstration of the sort of pitfalls avoided by unified family court involved an adoption petition that was not heard on the merits because it was filed in the family division rather than the dependency division. C.S. v. I.V., 899 So. 2d 444, 445-446 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005)(affirming order denying motions for entry of a final judgment and for rehearing). As succinctly stated by the Fourth District Court of Appeal: [t]his case provides a perfect example of the procedural quagmire faced by litigants in attempting to navigate the legal system within the independent divisions of the court. It is for this very reason that our supreme court has advocated the establishment of a Unified Family Court where one judge can resolve the various legal issues affecting one family. Id. at 446 citing Family Courts IV. The Steering Committee therefore requests that this Court require the appointment of a single administrative family law judge within each circuit. “One Family One Judge” There is inherent confusion in the very name of this approach. All unified family court cases should involve a team of dedicated professionals working to assist families and children in crisis. The question then is whether the courts employ a one family one judge (who works with a team of people) or a one family one team of judges (who each work with various team members) approach. The experiences over the last several years demonstrates that permitting the one team of judges approach has allowed many circuits to obfuscate the operation of any meaningful unified family court. In Family Courts IV, this Court contemplated coordination of multiple cases for the same family and the use of either the “one family one judge” or the “one family one team” approach. Family Courts IV at 529. However, a majority of the Steering Committee now believes that the “team” approach is frequently employed in ways that are insufficient to operate unified family court principles without fulfilling the intent: to establish a comprehensive approach coordinating all judicial efforts in cases affecting the same family, regardless of the sometimes necessary geographical separation of courthouse facilities or the manner in which dockets for different types of cases are structured and managed. Family Courts II at 17. A family with multiple cases will necessarily be working with a “team” consisting of various individuals such as a judge, a court case manager, lawyers, a guardian ad litem, and a domestic violence advocate. Nonetheless, a single judge, dedicated to the potential primary family issues, is crucial to the realization of the unified family court. This is not the first time this Court has been asked to adopt the “one family one judge” approach. See Family Courts I at 587 (recommendation that “[e]ach circuit should develop a procedure that will provide a means to assign all current family law matters, including matters involving juvenile dependency and delinquency proceedings that [affect] one family, to one judge”). Experience has shown that the most effective approach is one in which all family matters are heard by the same judge. This Court recognized that “if all cases involving the same family are identified and assigned to a single judge, many of [the] problems of coordination and confidentiality will be eliminated.” Family Courts IV at 526. Therefore, by a vote of 17-5, the Steering Committee recommends that this Court mandate that: All judicial circuits shall provide a case coordination system that results in related family cases 3 b eing assigned to the same judge, commonly referred to as “one family – one judge.” Experience has shown that the family court described by the Supreme Court in Family Courts IV is not accomplished unless the “one family one judge” principle is implemented in each circuit. Chief judges can accomplish this task without delay. The “one family one judge” principle shall be the standard. A departure from implementing the standard may be permitted by the Supreme Court upon a showing of good cause, in writing by the chief judge, together with a plan to accomplish the standard. center_img Unified family court petition filed September 1, 2005 Regular Newslast_img



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