By Niki Holmes, CFCC Student Fellow 2013-2014
Last Wednesday, the Student Fellows with the University of Baltimore Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts (“CFCC”) took a “field trip” to the Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division. The Division’s coordinator, T.Sue German gave the Student Fellows a tour of the center and explained the role the Division plays in Baltimore City.
Justice reform in Maryland was formally launched in January of 1998 when the judges of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, headed by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, signed Rule 16-204. Babb, Barbara A., Maryland’s Family Divisions: Sensible Justice for Families and Children, 72 Md. L. Rev. 1124 (2013). Thus far, the focus of much of our CFCC seminar has been on looking at law reform through different lenses. For example, Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Preventive Law together work to create a justice system that focuses on preventing future conflicts and resolving disputes in a more “client-centered” way.
The tour was an opportunity for us as students to see how these theories play a role every day in Baltimore City’s Family Division. While much was discussed during our visit, one fact that stood out was that from July 1, 2011 – June 30, 2012 (Fiscal Year 2012), in eighty-nine percent (89%) of the cases in the Division, at least one of the litigants appeared pro se. Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Annual Report of the Family Division Fiscal Year 2012 (Oct. 15, 2012). Although unsure, I can imagine this is the case in most courts, as clients with family law matters are not afforded the same right to counsel as those in criminal.
The Division has established many resources for represented and unrepresented clients and has seen tremendous success from these efforts, making Baltimore City a model for an effective “Unified Family Court” System. However, budget cuts impair the ability of the Division to reach its full potential. With family law disputes making up such a large percentage of the cases in the Circuit Court system, budget cuts relate to the lack of resources available these clients. Even in Baltimore City, where the State’s highest court has endorsed and supported the Family Division, they still struggle with budget issues.
I pose a few reflection questions for you to think about:
- If these efforts are proven to be successful, why are they then not being incorporated into more legal systems?
- If justice is the goal, then why do we as a society allow so many clients to be unrepresented in family law cases, thus hindering their ability to receive the justice they deserve?
While the simplest answer is of course budget cuts, there is a lot of support showing that these models help to decrease repetitive appearances by the same clients over and over and are both more efficient and effective.