NCSC 2020 Trends in State Courts Highlights the Family Justice Initiative

August 7, 2020

Last month, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) released their 2020 Trends in State Courts. The articles in this year’s publication covered, among many others, a diversity of topics such as on-demand virtual-remote-interpreting services, online dispute resolution, gray divorcees, and the development and testing of visual icons for forms in family law cases. In addition, one of the articles covered the Family Justice Initiative (FJI) and was coauthored by Natalie Knowlton, IAALS Director of Special Projects.

To support family courts in evaluating and improving the way domestic relations cases are handled, FJI was formed in 2017 as a partnership between IAALS, the NCSC, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). It is modeled on the successful Civil Justice Initiative—a similar partnership between IAALS and the NCSC—and its recommendations for reform, which were extended and modified by FJI to address domestic relations cases.

In the FJI project’s first phase, the team conducted a study of domestic relations caseload characteristics, the findings of which are published in The Landscape of Domestic Relations Cases in State Courts. The study yielded both expected and surprising results. Nearly 65 percent of cases were uncontested, a statistic consistent across courts and case types. Contested cases were more likely to involve minor children and, unsurprisingly, were more likely to have case-related activity. Yet the mean time to disposition was not significantly different between contested and uncontested cases, with approximately one quarter of both types being resolved in three months. And most cases examined in the study (over 70 percent) involved at least one self-represented party—which is remarkably consistent with overall civil cases, according to The Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts.

Informed by the Landscape study, the CJI recommendations, and other best practices, the FJI team—with guidance and oversight from the CCJ/COSCA Joint Committee on Children and Families—then developed its Principles for Family Justice Reform. The 13 Principles equip courts with strategies for improving the way they process domestic relations cases, switching away from the traditional one-size-fits-all—and often adversarial—approach to managing family cases. Instead, the Principles emphasize problem solving and cooperation between parties—especially when children are involved.

The Principles are also focused on a triage pathway system “that matches cases and parties to appropriate resources and services both within and outside the court and supports increased information for self-represented litigants and robust training for stakeholders.” Best practices for such an approach can be found in the companion report, A Model Process for Family Justice Initiative Pathways. The three pathways include:

  • The streamlined pathway, which is designed for cases that require minimal court resources and little or no exercise of judicial discretion.
  • The tailored services pathway, which is designed to provide resources and services (including a robust suite of alternative dispute resolution processes) that empower parties to problem solve to reach resolution.
  • The judicial/specialized pathway, which is designed for cases that necessitate substantial court-based or community services and resources to reach a resolution.

The Principles “envision that parties should be empowered to play a proactive role in charting their course through the courts.” The Principles also emphasize the need for courts to provide clear, straightforward information to parties and assistance to self-represented litigants, to identify and strengthen community partnerships, and to implement standardized, ongoing monitoring of caseloads and develop evidence-informed practices.

The current and final phase of the project involves the implementation of the principles in four pilot courts across the country: Miami-Dade, Florida; King County, Washington; Pima County, Arizona; and Cuyahoga County, Ohio. IAALS, the NCSC, and NCJFCJ worked closely with the family courts in these jurisdictions to find ways to implement the Principles, and the COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately paused pilot efforts as courts attend to the urgent and important issue of serving justice in the “new normal.” Nevertheless, the work of the FJI project has already influenced these courts—and others—in their thinking and management of domestic relations cases.

“The evolving nature of family dynamics requires courts to respond with innovative models to help resolve family matters and improve access to and quality of justice. The Family Justice Initiative Principles draw upon data-informed strategies and best practices to provide new approaches to support families.”

IAALS stands as a resource for family courts interested in learning more about the Family Justice Initiative Principles and how these important recommendations can be implemented to better serve the needs of families.

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