Families and Access to the Family Justice System: A Look Forward

By Charisse Lue, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016

It is now over 17 years since Maryland Rule 16-204 established the Maryland Family Division.[1]  Rule 16-204 not only gave the Family Division subject–matter jurisdiction over issues like divorce, adoption, custody, and child protection, but it was also an acknowledgment by the court system that Maryland families needed more than just adjudicatory services.  As stated in the mission statement, the Maryland Family Division now recognized that the court system needed to “make available appropriate services for families who need them.”

Since 1999, the Family Division has been providing services that address legal and non-legal issues to the families and children of Maryland.  For example, the court provides families access to parenting classes, as well as family mediation to address issues related to child support and divorce. The Family Division also makes referrals to anger management as an alternative to criminalizing family disputes.  The family justice system now implements a holistic, therapeutic  approach to family issues by implementing programs such as Juvenile Drug Court, parent coordination, and referrals for addiction assessment and treatment, all while preserving the rule of law and functioning as a court of law.

Now that it has been 17 years since the creation of the Family Division, the Department of Family Administration of the Administrative Office of the Court, in partnership with the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts,[2] is taking a look-back through empirical data and testimonials to continue to achieve the Family Division’s goal of “improving the lives of families and children who appear before court.”  Currently, 43% of civil cases in Maryland are under the family court’s jurisdiction.  The CFCC Student Fellows recently toured the Baltimore City Family Division and learned that there are crucial staff positions unfilled, like a Parent Coordinator and Social Services Coordinator.  Moreover, many of the positions which are filled, like the Family Law Coordinator, often manage a caseload of hundreds of cases.  The family justice system has to balance the realities of cost with its goals and mission, which includes access to legal and non-legal remedies.

Some have advocated for a court rule for Limited License Legal Technicians to provide legal access to low income families at a reduced price.  This could potentially reduce costs for litigants, families and, of course, the court system by providing limited legal services to pro se and low income families before the court.  For example, they could assist litigants in filling out legal forms, review and explain pleadings, and explain court procedures.  As we look forward and discover methods of improving the Family Division for the next 17 years, perhaps using cost effective legal assistance from Limited License Legal Technicians and other new possibilities should be considered.

[1] http://www.baltocts.state.md.us/divisions/family.html

[2] http://law.ubalt.edu/centers/cfcc/

4 thoughts on “Families and Access to the Family Justice System: A Look Forward

  1. Charisse-

    I agree that providing Limited License Legal Technicians would be beneficial to low-income families and would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the family court system. I think it would also be helpful to families who may not necessarily be considered “low-income” but who have questions or need assistance with legal issues that may not require hiring an attorney.

    Also, I think that the courts should take initiative to inform families and communities about the non-legal services provided by the Family Divisions. If families view the court as a helping tool, rather than as a form of punishment, they may be more inclined to seek assistance from the court and resolve their domestic disputes. Also, the utilization of the court’s resources may alleviate many non-legal issues in family functioning and prevent future legal problems that result from those issues.

    • Angela,

      I think you made a great point in mentioning the middle class. They are often left out when it comes to accessing legal services due to the catch-22 they find themselves in. More often than not, they do not qualify for “low-income” legal services but they also cannot afford to pay an attorney. I think Limited License Legal Technicians would be a great source for those stuck in this situation. It would be a great way to expand on some of the services Maryland already offers such as: Maryland Courts Self-Help Center, District Court Self-Help Resource Centers, and Family Law Self-Help Centers.

  2. Thank you, Amanda. I completely agree that there should be a holistic approach to adjudication, particularly involving children and families. Providing referrals and a system involving “aftercare” would prevent recidivism and reduce trauma induced crimes.

    • I agree with you both. I would love to see the courts and other agencies use Limited License Legal Technicians in family law. For instance, Washington, D.C. allows Limited License Legal Technicians to assist and advise persons in divorce and child custody disputes. If Maryland were to implement a similar policy, it would assist in reducing the number of pro se litigates.

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