University of Denver

New Report Sheds Light on the Need for Reform for Family Cases

Director, Special Projects

A first of its kind study, Family Justice Initiative: The Landscape of Domestic Relations Cases in State Courts, brings together national data from family cases that confirms what we have long known at IAALS: family courts must do more to focus on problem solving rather than rely on the traditional structure framed around an adversarial approach.

The report was recently released by the National Center for State Courts Family Justice Initiative, of which IAALS is a partner organization. IAALS assisted in the qualitative data collection component of this study, which included interviews of participating jurisdictions to understand their domestic relations case management and docket management practices.

“What is also clear from the study is that family court procedures still largely reflect the traditional adversarial system rather than the contemporary reality of parties that mostly agree on how they want to arrange their family relationships and other commitments following the termination of a legal marriage. This presents a profound change in the role of the court from an adjudicative to a facilitative process,” the survey found. Study authors also acknowledged that its findings “raise questions both of how domestic relations cases should be managed and whether the judicial branch is still the most appropriate forum for such cases.”

Other key findings from the NCSC report include:

  • Today’s families are less likely to include a married couple, and most litigants don’t hire an attorney.
  • Contested and uncontested cases in the study took about the same amount of time.
  • One in four family court cases reopen, and reopened cases are more likely to involve minor children.
  • Family court data is inadequate and makes it difficult to manage cases.

The Family Justice Initiative is modeled on another IAALS and NCSC collaboration, the Civil Justice Initiative, which excluded family cases because of the unique challenges they present. Moving forward, the second phase of the Family Justice Initiative work will extend and modify the Civil Justice Initiative recommendations to address domestic relations cases. Phase 3 of the Initiative will identify jurisdictions to participate in implementing recommendations as well as evaluating pilot projects in four jurisdictions.

IAALS applauds the first step data collection effort this study represents. Its initial findings support our long-held conclusions that family cases require a markedly different approach in process and management. The data collected continues to bolster IAALS’ belief that alternative approaches that rely on more user-friendly, streamlined, and accessible frameworks will produce the best results for families who need them.

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A first of its kind study, this report brings together national data from family cases that confirms what we have long known at IAALS: family courts must do more to focus on problem solving rather than rely on the traditional structure framed around an adversarial approach.Read More