Indiana Takes Steps to Improve Family Justice, Adopts 13 Principles for Reform
The Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush issued an Order in September 2019 creating the Family Law Taskforce (FLT), which was directed to: 1) analyze the research on court reform; 2) assess the impact of innovations in other states; 3) identify innovative strategies to significantly improve court processes; and 4) provide a written report of findings and recommendations.
In an effort to make courts more efficient, less expensive, and easier to navigate in family law matters, the FLT issued a report with 19 recommendations that are meant to ensure that all have access to family courts. The Indiana Supreme Court published the final report’s recommendations in October 2021 and can be read here.
The Taskforce was chaired by Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Elizabeth F. Tavitas and is comprised of trial court judges, family law attorneys, law professors, psychologists, and employees from the Office of Judicial Administration. The FLT undertook their charge of researching and recommending innovations to assist family law judges, lawyers, and litigants to provide access to justice and efficiently resolve family law matters with less trauma for families and better outcomes for families. The FLT incorporated, as its foundation, the 13 Principles for Family Justice Reform in the final recommendations for innovation and reform. These 13 Principles are divided into four sections: 1) Problem-Solving Approach; 2) Triage Family Case Filings with Mandatory Pathway Assignments; 3) Training and Stakeholder Partnerships; and 4) Data Collection, Evaluation and Technology Innovation.
Indiana recognized the initial challenge is to encourage trial judges to become leaders in family law cases and to triage cases by directing cases to the correct pathway for resolution. Integral to this leadership is adopting case management standards for resolving family law cases. The FLT recommends that Indiana adopt the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) model time standards that encourage the following goals to conclude family law cases:
- 75% within 120 days
- 90% within 180 days
- 98% within 365 days
The FLT recognized that advanced training—especially trauma-informed training for trial court judges, their staff, and lawyers—is essential for family law cases. It is also essential that litigants and families receive trauma-informed education and improved parenting classes.
The use of technology is another key component for innovation. The FLT recommends using online dispute resolution for family law cases as a tool parties and self-represented litigants can utilize to assist in resolving their disputes. The recommendations envision increased resources for self-represented litigants, including guided interviews to assist them in preparing and filing actions. Also, the FLT recommends the creation of toolkits to assist judges, court clerks, librarians, and judicial staff who work with self-represented litigants and to provide them with the essential resources. Text-message hearing reminders are also recommended for litigants.
New to Indiana is the recommendation for guardian ad litem (GAL) guidelines and a code of ethics for GALs in family law and guardianship cases. These recommendations include the requirement for qualifications and training for GALs.
The final recommendation is the development of an implementation team, or set of teams, to bring the recommendations to fruition. The Indiana Supreme Court expressed gratitude for the FLT’s efforts and recommendations, and will identify the next steps for implementing innovation in family law matters.