Introduction: The FLAFCC proposal on the development of a family court intake system was presented before the Family Court Committee (FCC) and unanimously approved. We are pleased to present the FLAFCC’s position paper on creating an intake process for family matters.
Authored By: Judge Sandy Karlan and Robert Merlin, Esq.
The Florida Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (FLAFCC) believes that it is in the best interest of Florida’s families to create an in-take system for all families to identify issues that they need to address, and should address, before they take action in Family Court to resolve their disputes. And to this end, FLAFCC proposes convening a task force of various stake holders, in partnership with The Florida Supreme Court Family Court Committee, to consider the elements necessary for an intake system for families that would be consistent with the Court’s opinion In re Report of the Family Court Steering Committee, 794 So.2d 518 (Fla. 2001), and which can be implemented throughout Florida. The group will consider various pilot projects that are currently in process such as The Out of Court Divorce Project as part of IAALS in Denver, Colorado and various pilot projects on child support promoted by the federal government’s office on child support.
The creation of an intake system was an integral part of the essential elements of a model family court:
4(b) Intake and Referral (including Self-help Program). The Florida Supreme Court should require each circuit to establish an intake process to provide information, make referrals to legal or social services, and assist self-represented litigants. Services should be available whether or not the person files a lawsuit and without regard to income.
Such an intake/referral system that assists litigants who come to the court seeking information, but who are not necessarily ready to file a petition in the family court, is also consistent with the philosophy of the Court’s opinion. In that opinion, the Court recognized that:
Therapeutic justice should be a key part of the family court process. Therapeutic justice is a process that attempts to address the family’s interrelated legal and nonlegal problems to produce a result that improves the family’s functioning. The process should empower families through skills development, assist them to resolve their own disputes, provide access to appropriate services, and offer a variety of dispute resolution forums where the family can resolve problems without additional emotional trauma.
Whenever possible, parties and their attorneys should be empowered to select processes for addressing issues in their cases that are compatible with the family’s needs, financial circumstances, and legal requirements. Once a case is filed with the courts, then the coordinated management or differentiated case management by all court personnel can be engaged. This means that the family court judges are overseeing both legal and non-legal issues and referring the parties to appropriate services. But what about before the case is filed, Many family members come to the court because they do not know where else to go and they have conflicts in their families that they believe must be resolved by the courts. But what if the Court at the intake, in partnership with community providers, could refer the parties to community services that might assist the parties in resolving their issues without the necessity of litigation.
As further described in the Court’s opinion:
Recommendations #4(b), Intake and Referral, and #4(c), Case Management: Among other things, the coordinated management model includes a front-end intake process to provide information, make referrals to legal or social services and assist self-represented litigants. See Recommendation #4(b). Effective front-end management allows for litigants to become educated about the system and is crucial to the effective utilization and coordination of both community services and court resources. The services a child receives should be dictated by the individual needs of the child and not the particular door of the courthouse through which the child enters. Effective case management will enable this goal to be realized. To that end, the model recognizes that family division judges must have sufficient case management staff to perform differentiated case management, to coordinate all cases involving a single family, to coordinate and monitor services provided to each family and to collect aggregate data to measure performance of the family division. See Recommendation # 4(c).
Substantial work has been done by the Family Court Committee over the years since 2001 on the issues of related cases and attempts to develop effective case management by additional training of judges, however, little attention has been paid to the pre-filing intake/referral process that is also part of the model. This project envisions more than simply providing families with prose forms and advice at self-help offices. We envision that the intake/referral process would provide needed services to families and would lighten the burden on Florida’s court system, perhaps through a public-private partnership.
FLAFCC is an organization that is suited to convene a task force to make recommendations to create a viable intake system in Florida to help families receive the help they need, rather than the family automatically resorting to filing an action in court. FLAFCC believes that the creation and development of an intake system is a project that it can devote the time and energy to developing because of its commitment to interdisciplinary professional cooperation and reduction of litigation in families. Further, FLAFCC convenes a conference in partnership with OSCA every year that is dedicated to presenting and discussing innovative practices regarding families and the law, which provides a natural audience of participants for this work.
We are aware of potential hurdles that must be overcome, however, as with all previous initiatives of the Florida Supreme Court regarding the family court process, we believe that with the support of the Family Court Committee we will be able to contribute to the innovative projects of our state that serve our families.