Despite presenting challenges to numerous court processes, the pandemic also afforded opportunities for courts to implement innovations that are making family courts more accessible, efficient, high priority – and less adversarial. The innovations are part of the Conference of Chief Justices/Conference of State Court Administrators Family Justice Initiative (FJI), which is celebrating many milestones:
- Passage of a CCJ/COSCA resolution that supports FJI’s “bold, national recommendations”
- Release ofan online report that serves as a repository for courts that have effectively responded the needs of families before, during, and after the pandemic
- The launch ofredesigned web pages that provide guidelines, recommendations, and best practices
FJI, established in 2017 with funding from SJI, is supported 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 Judges (NCJFCJ).
The project’s first phase included a national assessment of domestic relations case processing in urban courts. Phase two included the development of national Principles for Family Justice Reform. Following CCJ’s approval of the Principles, project partners launched Phase Three to implement the Principles in four pilot jurisdictions: Miami-Dade, Florida; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Pima County, Arizona; and King County, Washington.
Soon after the pilot sites began improvement efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The four sites met virtually in June 2020 to share progress and reevaluate needs as a result of the pandemic. Some of the “silver linings” the sites identified include: improved communication with parties as court staff walked parties through the processes remotely; improved scheduling options, giving parties autonomy to schedule their hearings online; and increased use of remote proceedings that resulted in improved appearance rates and party satisfaction. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Marion County, Indiana have since joined the FJI implementation efforts.
The FJI team – taking into consideration adaptations courts made as a result of the pandemic –identified supplemental recommendations, which CCJ and COSCA endorsed in Resolution 4 in July. The new recommendations include:
- Affording family cases the same prestige and respect as other court matters
- Aggressively triaging cases as early as possible
- Simplifying court procedures to allow self-represented litigants to engage in the justice system and are treated fairly
- Ensuring that self-help information and services are available both in person and remotely
- Offering families a choice of dispute resolution options
- Promoting the well-being of families through the life of their case as the primary desired case outcome
Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger, FJI chair, said he hopes this resolution “will help family courts respond to the common barriers presented by high caseloads, limited staffing, complex procedures, and narrow service options, and increased numbers of self-represented litigants. The COVID-19 pandemic brings new urgency around the need for family courts to implement positive adaptations and support continuous innovation.”
“We all recognize the strains brought on by the pandemic,” said Alicia Davis, FJI project manager and NCSC principal court consultant. “It is encouraging to see how these courts and others are redesigning processes to meet the needs of families.”