Why the Unified Family Court System in Maryland is a Model for Success

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.

3 thoughts on “Why the Unified Family Court System in Maryland is a Model for Success

  1. Great post Niki!To answer your questions, I feel that society is extremely obsessed with short term issues. If the initial cost of initiating a Unified Family Court System (UFCS) seems to be expensive. We are just starting to get out of an unstable economic situation and the idea of investing into an UFCS may appear unimaginable at the moment. However, I feel that within the next 10 years UFCS will become a common investment. When it comes to representation in family law cases, I don't think society see's family law cases as “cases.” I believe they are viewed as “personal matters.” Sadly, these “personal matters” often change an individual's, the family's and the children's lives completely. Unfortunately, I don't think society realizes the value and importance of family courts. I truly hope that CFCC is able to change that mindset.Best,Juli

  2. This was a great read, Niki. I mirror that feeling of frustration with our court system's lack of representation for family litigants. Unfortunately in the political and financial climate we're in right now, we're looking for Bandaids instead of vaccinations. While it gets us by day-to-day that fails to remedy the problem and I suspect it's a huge reason why we see so many people coming back to the court system for redress. While it's easy for me to say that we should provide low cost or free representation for indigent family litigants, I understand the financial burden it would place on an already strained system, but perhaps it is something we should consider moving towards. I was surprised and impressed to see that the Baltimore City Unified Family Court staffs two attorneys who help litigants fill out their paperwork properly. While it only addresses one of the many issues facing family law litigants, I think it's a great step in the right direction. I like to think, however, that a more thorough representation project will begin to address the staggering need of legal assistance that pro se litigants in Baltimore's family courts face.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *