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Update on the Family Justice Initiative

The fact that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce means that a lot of Americans end up in family courts, but many of those courts are not equipped to meet the needs of today’s families, according to a new study by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Justices (NCJFCJ).

The Family Justice Initiative (FJI), an ambitious, first-of-its-kind project, supported by SJI hopes to change that by making it easier and quicker for litigants to navigate family courts.

“This is an initiative that has the capacity to help courts that are struggling to assist families,” said Alicia Davis, principal court management consultant. “Courts are effective in determining winners and losers, but family courts have to help families solve their problems. If we can study problem-solving strategies, we can eventually say to courts across the country, ‘This is what really helps families.’”

The FJI’s goal is to create better and faster experiences for litigants and less stress and more gratification for judges and other court employees.

The first phase of the three-phase initiative recently ended with the release of a study of 10 large family courts nationwide.  The study showed that cases – whether they are contested or uncontested – take longer than they should, and that courts don’t have good enough data to make changes that will make court processes more efficient and allow court employees to more effectively help litigants.  The specific finding that surprised Davis most is that contested and uncontested cases take about the same amount of time. She was least surprised that between 70 percent and 80 percent of litigants came to court without a lawyer.  “That’s something we’ve been hearing for a long time.”

The second phase of the initiative, currently ongoing, will develop recommendations, with direction from Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, who is leading an advisory committee on the issue.

The third phase is a pilot project stage, which will test those recommendations in 4 pilot courts over a period of approximately 18 months.  A handful of courts have expressed interest in being a pilot court.  The pilot courts will be identified and announced early next year.