By Amin Berrah, CFCC Student Fellow 2012-2013
The Center for Families, Children and the Courts’ focus on promoting court reform is based on the belief that families would benefit most from a legal system which addresses underlying issues (such as substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness etc.) as part of an effective and therapeutic judicial process1 In a state where half of court filings involve family law cases, the notion of a “user-friendly” court shouldn’t seem so far-fetched, since research has shown that “the very processes of the family and juvenile justice systems inadvertently create and inflame problems for adults and children alike.”2 Treating complex family problems like a string of separate incidents litigated in different venues causes unnecessary delay and cost, duplication of effort, and often results in conflicting orders from judges.3 Many of these decisions are made with little regard for their therapeutic outcome on participants or their impact on other pending cases or hearings; perhaps just as importantly, these experiences negatively impact participants’ view of the legal system.4
CFCC’s Student Fellows Program offers UB law students an opportunity to work on projects addressing court reform and truancy issues in Maryland. Studying therapeutic jurisprudence5 and preventive law6 lets students view the law as a peacemaker, a significant departure from the adversarial model we are constantly reminded of. It puts the law in a broader context by showing how it can be combined with insight from other disciplines (like psychology and sociology) to produce more effective outcomes while staying true to principles of justice and other constitutional values. It also teaches us that the legal system will inevitably have a lasting effect on the people who walk through its doors, thereby increasing the importance of considering how effectively our current processes address not only the matter that brought the family to court but also any underlying non-legal issues as well as access to services and alternative dispute resolution.7
But what is also magnified by the study of the scholarship advocating family court reform is the lack of exposure of law students to these realities of the profession. A curriculum which focuses almost entirely on providing the “correct” answer to theoretical disputes or debating the virtues of controversies long-since settled provides law students with little practical training in problem-solving or unearthing our clients’ underlying problems. It does not teach us how to tailor solutions to a family’s legal and emotional issues, or how to ensure that issues relating to the well-being of children receive proper attention in our courts. It doesn’t prepare us for the lack of interest some colleagues or judges may have in family law, the lack of attention to the needs of poor and unrepresented litigants, or how to explain the time-consuming, expensive, cumbersome, and duplicative court process to our clients. And yet as a third year student, I can honestly say that the classes with the most impact are the few that put the law in a greater context because they speak to the profession’s more noble values while also acknowledging its limitations. This, in turn, requires us to either take part in a system we know is flawed, or to play a role, no matter how small, in reforming it. While certainly not every student who is exposed to some of the flaws of our legal system will turn into a zealous advocate for change, it is nearly impossible to imagine these changes occurring without some prodding from the profession’s rank and file.
1.What is the Center for Families, Children and the Courts?
The University of Baltimore School of Law, http://law.ubalt.edu/centers/cfcc/whoweare/ index.cfm (last visited September 18, 2012).
2. Catherine J. Ross, The Failure of Fragmentation: The Promise of A System of Unified Family Courts, 33 Rev. Jur. U.I.P.R. 311, 314 (1999) (quoting Barbara A. Babb, An Interdisciplinary Approach to Family Law Jurisprudence: Application of an Ecological and Therapeutic Perspective, 72 IND. L.J. 775, 798 (1997)).
3. Id. Ms. Ross argues that these delays are compounded by the fact that legal proceedings which drag on a year or more represent a significant part of a young child’s life, resulting in a “multiplier effect” when measuring the impact on a toddler. Id. at 315.
4. Id. at 314-16.
5. “Therapeutic jurisprudence is the study of the role of law as a therapeutic agent. It is an interdisciplinary enterprise designed to produce scholarship that is particularly useful for law reform. It proposes the exploration of ways in which, consistent with principles of justice and other constitutional values, the knowledge, theories, and insights of the mental health and related disciplines can help shape development of the law.” See Dennis P. Stolle et. al., Integrating Preventive Law and Therapeutic Jurisprudence: A Law and Psychology Based Approach to Lawyering, 34 Cal. W. L. Rev. 15, 17 (1997).
6. “Preventive law provides a framework in which the practicing lawyer may conduct professional activities in a manner that both minimizes his or her clients’ potential legal liability and enhances their legal opportunities. In essence, preventive law is a proactive approach to lawyering.” Id. at 15.
7. Ross, supra note 2, at 314-18.