In 2001, the Florida Supreme Court Steering Committee on Children and Families presented its vision for a uniform family court intake system. To date, there has been no integrated approach in applying the Steering Committee’s recommendations, which remains timely today as Florida Family Court Divisions struggle to manage the ongoing influx of cases in a way that better meets the needs of the parties throughout the duration of their court process.
Inspired by information gleaned from Association of Family and Conciliation Court’s (AFCC) Annual Conferences, in 2017 Robert J. Merlin, Esquire, Hon. Sandy Karlan (ret.), and Linda Fieldstone, M.Ed., approached FLAFC (Florida Chapter of AFCC) to spearhead a Task Force on Family Court Intake (“Task Force”). The FLAFCC Board of Directors was enthusiastic, recognizing the benefits for the future of Florida’s Family Courts.
The Task Force Co-Chairs, Robert J. Merlin, Esquire, Hon. Sandy Karlan (ret.), and Linda Fieldstone, M.Ed., began a statewide collaborative effort to gather existing options from Florida Circuits and other jurisdictions, nationally and internationally; compile research; create a “wish list”; and review the possibilities. Peggie Ward, Ph.D., joined the efforts as a fourth Co-Chair in 2018. Through presentations at two FLAFCC Conferences, the Task Force engaged others who joined our mission, including Family Court Managers, representatives of the clerks’ offices, magistrates and members of the judiciary.
The Task Force began its first step of data gathering by creating a survey to ascertain the current intake procedure for family matters in each Florida circuit, what was working well and what was needed to improve their intake process. Simultaneously, the Task Force was involved in an outreach beyond Florida to explore family court intake systems that were being used and working well in the U.S., Canada, and other jurisdictions, as well as program and procedural limitations. Resources were collected and reviewed, including academic and institutional information. Click here for Resources.
Four components of the Family Court Intake system were then identified and committees were created to address: Self-Represented Parties (SRPs), Triage, Case Management, and Technology. Each Task Force Co-Chair facilitated one of the four committees, which were comprised of members who self-selected their area of interest. While it was first anticipated that the committees would work rather independently, it soon became clear that a far more nuanced process was required. Providing information to SRPs, facilitating triage, implementing case management, and utilizing technology are not limited to intake procedures only; they are integral to the entire flow of each case, from beginning to end. Soon, all of the committees were collaborating with an integrated approach to triage and case management, including the use of technology, whether parties were or were not legally represented.
The FLAFCC Family Court Intake Task Force recognizes the tremendous efforts of all those involved, including those contributing to the development of committee recommendations, as well as those who provided initial feedback and information. Special appreciation goes to General Magistrate Kristen Smith-Rodriguez, Kim Stephens, Bailey C. Smith, and Judge Lee Schreiber for their outstanding efforts.
On December 5, 2020, the FLAFCC Family Court Intake Task Force presented its recommendations to the Board of Directors of FLAFCC. We believe that this model includes an integrated approach toward Family Court Intake that best serves each Florida circuit/county and their constituents, thereby “Opening the Umbrella to Processing Family Court Cases.”
TASK FORCE RECOMMENDATIONS
FLAFCC TASK FORCE ON FAMILY COURT INTAKE SELF-REPRESENTED PARTIES IN THE COURTS COMMITTEE
RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESOURCES
The charge of the Self-Represented Parties (“SRPs”) in the Courts Committee was to identify best practices and/or recommend solutions to frequent barriers self-represented parties encounter while navigating the Florida family court system. SRPs are defined as individuals who file an action in the court who is not represented by an attorney. It is estimated that annually 72% of court cases involve at least one SRP in the United States’ domestic relations courts. This is why the efforts to improve SRPs experiences are so vital. When consistent best practices are implemented by the court, court support staff, clerks and other individuals with whom the SRPs have contact, the parties’ experiences with the court and legal system will surely improve.
How do we provide better outcomes to SRPs? Cases often resolve faster and with outcomes that are more desirable when the court and parties actively participate. With participation, the parties receive guidance from the court (reference to forms and the rules of procedures, discovery tools, and statutory requirements) which allows SRPs to better present their case and provides more opportunities for case resolution. SRPs prefer and need a mix of services that include administrative support, legal information, and legal advice through online and in-person help. From the perspective of SRPs, simple encouragement and assurances can sometimes be as meaningful as legal help from a person trained in court procedures and resources, or from attorneys providing legal advice. SRPs are skilled at identifying the level of help they want at a given time and are likely to utilize multiple modalities over the course of a case.
The recommendations of the Self Represented Parties in the Courts Committee are as follows:
Establish full-service self-help centers in each county or circuit, using a combination of on-premises and virtual locations where a person can learn about the kinds of cases that can be filed, which one is most likely to fit their needs, what forms need to be filed, and what services are available for them in the community. The self-help centers can be in the courthouse, in a library, and at a legal aid office and can be staffed by community resource representatives from locations such as the housing division, shelters and economic relief offices.
Establish statewide standards or guidelines for the operations of self-help centers.
Obtain and utilize regular feedback from SRPs to improve self-help resources and centers.
Incorporate plain, clear language into family law forms in multiple languages. When drafting and amending family law forms, the Florida Family Law Rules Committee, the Family Law Section Rules and Forms Committee and the Florida Supreme Court Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court are encouraged to reference the National Association for Court Management Plain Language Guide on How to Incorporate Plain Language into Court Forms, Websites, and Other Materials.
Create a series of short family law videos with family court partners and the cooperation and input of the judiciary, state court administration, and other stakeholders. The videos (and accompanying educational materials) can be another medium to help SRPs navigate the family court system and the videos should be made available to the public (e.g., posted on each court’s website and throughout social media). The Committee believes important topics such as completing forms, service of process, discovery, presenting evidence during a hearing and preparation for final hearing are better understood when SRPs watch a short video and accompanying educational materials. The Committee has created two videos as examples. These videos are modeled after the Alaska State Court’s Family Law Self Help video series and can be made available in both physical and virtual self-help centers, as well as on circuit and state websites.
Help SRPs avoid common missteps in court proceedings. The Committee has prepared a list of missteps along with how to avoid them, as well as a Family Law Process for SRPs Flow Chart that covers all dissolution of marriage cases from beginning to end, which should be made available at all self-help centers and posted on every court website.
Contributing members of the Self Represented Committee are: Facilitator Dr. Peggie Ward, Ph.D., Co-Chairs Bailey Smith (12th) and General Magistrate Kristen Smith-Rodriguez (18th) and Pamela Anderson (1st), Tammy Mancini and Courtney Pringle (7th), Anne Marie Schuller (8th), Yumaris Pichards and Roberta Walton (9th), Andrea Small, Jennifer Steimle (10th), and Victoria Duponty (16th).
FLAFCC TASK FORCE ON FAMILY COURT INTAKE
TRIAGE COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESOURCES
The charge of the Triage Committee was to develop recommendations regarding the initial responses and possible pathways from initial filing and throughout the court process that would foster the best possible and least conflictual outcomes for those seeking resolution through the Family, Domestic Violence and Unified Family Court Divisions of the Florida Circuit Courts. The triage process should be used to identify the best pathway and services for each unique family depending on changes in family structure, the needs of the family system as well as each parent and child individually, and the level of conflict within the family.
The Triage Committee recommends the following triage process, to be implemented for every case as follows:
The Triage Committee created a language friendly triage questionnaire was created by the Triage Committee for parties to identify their initial issues and later throughout their court process according to the changing needs of the parties and family. Once completed by each party, the parties’ responses on the triage questionnaire help todetermine the most appropriate pathway for their court process at that juncture of their case, as well as referrals for services/resources available in each circuit according to parties’ responses:
Low conflict – parent education and mediation
Medium conflict – brief focused evaluation, Collaborative Process
High conflict – parenting coordination, parenting plan evaluation
Significant financial issues case procedure
Community resources available at each pathway entrance and upon request (e.g., 211 line for essential community services)
The chart below delineates the most appropriate process according to each conflict level. Referrals to services indicated by the triage questionnaire are reliant upon those available by location, cost/affordability and language spoken. Cases in which the parties do not require services to move through their court process effectively can move directly to their final hearing or enter an uncontested final order.
POSSIBILITY OF RESOLUTION
Low Conflict or No Contest(Few if any resources)
Can resolve with information and little or no dispute resolution process
Parent Education, Resource Referrals, Mediation
Medium Conflict(Some resources necessary to facilitate case flow)
Can resolve with input/recommendations and/or professional team in Collaborative Process
In addition to those above: Coparenting Facilitation, Issue Focused Evaluation, Collaborative Process
High Conflict(More extensive resources necessary to facilitate case flow)
Requires more extensive conflict resolution and coparenting oversight
In addition to those above: Intensive Parent Education,Parenting Coordination, Social Investigation,Parenting Plan Evaluation, Guardian ad Litem,Relocation Risk Assessment,Mental Health Assessment,Psychological Evaluation of Adult/Child,Substance Misuse/Abuse Evaluation,Supervised Parenting Time,Therapeutic Parent-Child Therapy/Visitation,Family Therapy Reunification Specialist,Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence Services
Significant Financial Issues(Resources pertinent to finances and distribution necessary to facilitate case flow)
Requires independent financial experts, Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
Business Valuation/CPA, Real Estate Appraisal, Retirement Plan Valuation, Mediation, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, Vocational Evaluation, Collaborative Process
List of community resources or 211 Available at any time to facilitate participation of party toward case resolution
Various junctures in the parties’ cases, in addition to initial filing, and changes in the parties’ circumstances should trigger an additional triage to determine if a different pathway/track is indicated:
Mediation impasse (moderate to high conflict)
Multiple, successive attorneys representing one or both parties (moderate to high conflict)
Numerous court hearings where the parties are relying on the court to address non-legal matters (moderate to high conflict)
Allegations of child abuse (high conflict)
Request for relocation of child (moderate to high conflict)
Child special needs (moderate to high conflict)
Capacity/physical disability limiting participation in court process (moderate to high conflict)
Mental health issues (moderate to high conflict)
Allegations of Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence (high conflict)
Allegations of substance misuse/abuse (high conflict)
Parent/Child estrangement or alienation, including risk of abduction/parental removal of child (high conflict)
Extensive criminal history (high conflict)
Administration of the triage questionnaire should be implemented through various methods, with dissemination to both parties prompted once a response to an initial filing is received:
Electronic means (e.g., SurveyMonkey), sent automatically through e-portal to both parties when response is received to Petitioner’s filing by clerk’s office or case manager
Initial packet from clerk with the link to the Survey, with instruction not required to complete until there is a response)
Hard copy through Self-Help Center
FLcourts.org, clerk’s website, each circuit’s website, FLAFCC, Self-Help
In-person meeting through Intake staff (as facilitated in the 20th Circuit)
Assessment of the triage questionnaire information should include:
Ideally, a computer program that receives the survey directly and automatically generates the Case Management Summary for Resource Referral to the Judge Form (created by the Triage Committee and included within this report), which would alleviate the filing of the questionnaire with the court.
Intake staff or case manager obtaining the survey information verbally, through interview with court designated staff or personnel; if not, from the written triage questionnaire completed by each party, who returns the questionnaire through e-portal or directly to case manager
Note: The Intake Committee places great emphasis on the role of the triage questionnaire within the court and how it could be maintained by an intake staff or Case Manager through a tangible file or ideally electronically:
subject to Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.420 Public Access and Protection of Judicial Branch Records/need designation as “confidential and exempt records”
subject to Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.440 Retention of Judicial Branch Administrative Records and the Judicial Branch Records Retention Schedule approved by
Florida Supreme Court
the Florida Supreme Court consider an amendment to the Rule of Judicial Administration on confidentiality to include Triage Survey
Referring or ordering the pathway and service(s) indicated is accomplished when:
Intake staff or case manager informs the judge/magistrate that a hearing is needed to address pathway indicated by the triage questionnaire when the referral to a service requires a court order (e.g., parenting coordination, substance misuse/abuse testing/treatment; alcohol monitoring). Notification to the judge/magistrate is executed by Intake Staff or Case Manager who:
Completes Case Management Summary for Resource Referral form (created by the Triage Committee and included in this report) to notify Judge/General Magistrate of triage questionnaire outcome (i.e., pathway and services indicated)
Prepares the Order for the Initial Case Management Form (created by the Triage Committee and included in this report) as the triage survey indicates.
Files both forms to case file and alerts Judge/General Magistrate that forms were filed
Judge/General Magistrate completes and disseminates Initial Case Management Form to the parties and their attorneys, if any, which provides notice of possible referrals to consider during the hearing, as indicated by triage questionnaire.
Additional factors to be considered:
The sooner the referral the better as early intervention can address issues, reduce risks, and reduce or manage conflict.
Be mindful of affordability and low-cost referrals/services.
There may be a need for a quasi-judicial officer, more case managers, and/or intake staff to assist with triage.
Quality control must be maintained throughout the triage process, where procedures are anchored within court administration, not clerk, for review of form to ascertain pathway and process(es) indicated.
Note: Authority to send recommendation to the Judge/General Magistrate:
A judge shall accord to every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, or that person’s lawyer, the right to be heard according to law. A judge shall not initiate, permit, or consider ex parte communications, or consider other communications made to the judge outside the presence of the parties concerning a pending or impending proceeding except that:
Where circumstances require, per Florida Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 3, ex parte communications for scheduling, administrative purposes, or emergencies that do not deal with substantive matters or issues on the merits are authorized, provided:
(i) the judge reasonably believes that no party will gain a procedural or tactical advantage as a result of the ex parte communication, and
(ii) the judge makes provision promptly to notify all other parties of the substance of the ex parte communication and allows an opportunity to respond.
Contributing members of the Triage Committee are: Facilitator Linda Fieldstone, M.Ed., and Hon. Mary Polson (1st), Patricia Sullivan (6th), Yumaris Pachardo, Celia Lopez Portobanco, and Carmen Torres (9th), General Magistrate Kristen Smith-Rodriguez (18th), Hon. Lee Schreiber and Amanda See (20th). Members of the Case Management Committee also collaborated, including Co-Chairs Kim Stephens (2nd) and General Magistrate Kristin Smith-Rodriguez (18th), and Andrea Small (10th), Cathy Cox (15th), and Robert Grieper (17th).
FLAFCC TASK FORCE ON FAMILY COURT INTAKE
CASE MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESOURCES
The charge of the Case Management Committee was to develop recommendations regarding a Model Family Law Case Management process. Effective case management is crucial for the parties and the court from initial filing through completion of each case. Case Management’s primary focus should be a customer service-based approach. The parties’ experiences with the court and legal system will significantly improve when consistent best practices are implemented throughout their court process.
Case management is an integral part of all family law cases. Cases often resolve faster with better outcomes when the court and parties actively participate. With participation, the parties receive guidance from the court (reference to forms, the rules of procedures, discovery tools, and statutory requirements) which allows the parties to better present their case and provides more opportunities for case resolution. When parties are informed, they also file fewer motions requiring hearing time.
Case management is defined as case differentiation, case coordination, and case monitoring. In their 2001 report, the Family Court Steering Committee these components of case management were clarified: “Case differentiation means that a case should be evaluated at the outset to determine the appropriate resources for that case and the appropriate way to handle that case. Case coordination requires that the judicial system identify all cases involving that family. Case monitoring requires a continued attention to the needs of the children and family as the case moves through the judicial system so that the appropriate court resources are made available and linkages to appropriate community resources are facilitated.” In Re: Report of the Family Court Steering Committee, 794 So. 2d 518, 529 (Fla. 2001).
The process of triaging a case and educating self-represented parties areintertwined with case management. The case management process begins with triage (prioritizing and screening) so the court can be properly informed and is better able to efficiently manage the case. The courts simply have insufficient resources to effectively address all cases without appropriate screening, providing adequate information to SRPs targeted to their needs, and tracking each case expeditiously through the best-suited process for the parties.
The Case Management Sub-Committee created a Model Case Management Flow Chart that outlines the processes that should be implemented for case management of family matters, which includes procedures for self-represented parties and triage, as well as Unified Family Court to ensure that related family cases are heard before one judicial officer and conflicting orders are not entered (see “Protocol for Handling UFC Cases”). The case management model (see Integrated Case Flow Chart) should apply equally to all related court family cases.
The recommendations of the Case Management Committee are as follows:
The court should control the progress of the case; not the attorney or litigant; this includes the court limiting the number of continuances, or if granting a continuance state the reason and include a deadline for the next action and consequences for not complying of the order.
Self-Help and Triage processes must be available and provided for all cases.
Timeframes should be implemented for each case (or type of case). At the time of filing, cases should be prioritized according to their unique issues.
A Case Management Conference date should be scheduled toward the beginning of each case, as well as on future event dates to provide guideposts for case preparation for the parties and/or counsel to ensure a timely resolution of the matter.
A standard Order Setting Judicial Case Management Conference should be adopted. (A proposed order is included in the Triage Committee report).
Case management conferences should be scheduled if parties have not responded to inquiries from the case management office or self-help. This should be done on a regularly scheduled basis. Cases should not be permitted to sit idle.
The staff from the case management office (or self-help) should review each case to ensure all required information is provided as needed. Each party should be advised of missing information as soon as possible after the incomplete information is submitted.
Adequate financial resources should be provided to employ additional well-trained staff needed to conduct effective case management including, but not limited to: case review, related case search, resource referral, scheduling/court hearing facilitation, case coordination, judicial liaison for court and parties, form orders and document preparation. (Please refer to the Self-Help and Triage Committee Recommendations for further responsibilities).
Use General Magistrates and Hearing Officers as an integral part of the team for managing family court cases.
Adopt a uniform and standardized statewide case management system, consistent with Family Law Rule 12.200.
Parties should not be required to appear in person for uncontested final hearings. When a file is complete, including the documentation necessary to prove all the elements required to obtain relief from the court, the parties should be contacted to schedule a virtual final hearing.
Final hearings should not be required when all the documentation is in the court file. The judge should be able to enter a Final Judgment or an appropriate order without a hearing, based upon the documents in the court file.
The case management staff should stay the same when a new judge is rotated into a division. It would be best to have experienced court staff assigned to a new judge in the Family Division.
Contributing members of the Case Management Committee are identified by name and circuit: Facilitator Hon. Sandy Karlan (ret., 11th), Co-Chairs Kim Stephens (2nd) and General Magistrate Kristen Smith-Rodriguez (18th), and Courtney Pringle (7th), Celia Lopez Portobanco, and Carmen Torres (9th), Tara Kranz and Cathy Cox, (15th), Robert Grieper (17th), and Carol Cochran (19th).
FLAFCC TASK FORCE ON FAMILY COURT INTAKE
TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESOURCES
The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2(SARS-CoV-2), more commonly known as the COVID 19 pandemic, has forced the judicial system to adopt new technology platforms, demonstrated that remote access can benefit the public and the Family Court system, and identified virtual practices during court proceedings that should be further pursued and developed. Technology gives the Family Court System an opportunity to dramatically increase its efficiency and to better serve the public. For example, scheduling more virtual hearings will enable more parties to attend the hearings, it will reduce the amount of time attorneys and parties need to spend in a courthouse, it will enable judges and magistrates to better manage their calendars, and it will enable judges and magistrates to better manage their cases.
The Technology Subcommittee makes the following recommendations:
There should be uniformity of technology between all the circuits in Florida and the county courts within each circuit.
The same platform should be used by the courts and the clerks, or systems should be used that easily integrate shared data between the courts and clerks.
A state-wide data base should include all aspects of the courts, including criminal, domestic violence, Unified Family Court, and dependency. Judges need to know if a party has been involved in another relevant matter in a different circuit, county or jurisdiction.
A consistent process should be used for submitting documentary evidence to the courts in virtual hearings and trials throughout Florida. Parties should be able connect a device of their choice (computer, tablet, smart phone) via wireless presentation available in each courtroom, similar to the “Bring our own Device” concept used by Florida Ninth Judicial Circuit.
All court and clerk staff in the Family Court System should have access to a Florida Comprehensive Case Information System.
A consistent database should be established throughout Florida’s courts for clerks and court staff to obtain information about parties and reports on a regular basis.
The state-wide case management system should provide relevant statistics available to the clerk and court staff for appropriate purposes.
A communication process should be created to provide information to the parties and the public.
A call-in system with integrated smart phone capability and “mobile first” content to ease access, display and use should be available for parties without access to a computer or telephone with video capacity.
Circuits should reference the Florida Supreme Court family law forms. The best practice is for forms to be populated online with initial information that is provided by each party.
A self-help center should be accessible online as well as in person in all circuits and counties, with access to email for questions submitted to a clerk or cases manager. In the 17th Circuit, a court specialist answers simple questions and refers more complicated questions to a case manager.
Case managers or self-help centers should have a systematic electronic method to schedule hearings and mediation.
An automated court messaging system should be used by the court to communicate to parties and attorneys, providing reminders for upcoming hearings, deadlines, issues to be addressed or decided, missing documents and information, and materials to bring to court. Circuits should consider implementing a form similar to the 8th Judicial Circuit Court’s Permission to Use E-mail Form.
Information should be easily accessible to enhance the parties’ and the public’s knowledge of the family court process.
Key players (i.e., the local County Clerk of the Court, the local Self-Help Center, the court, etc.) should make it a priority to help SRPs use the E-filing portal to file and keep current with their case. Videos, online instructions, and checklists would assist in this process. The courts should have detailed explanations on their circuit websites on how to access hearings that are taking place through electronic means. Orders and notices of hearing should include the electronic application credentials and instructions on how to download the application, as well as detailed instructions on the court’s instructions for remote evidence procedures. This information should also appear on the court’s website or information sheet with a judge or magistrate’s specific requirements.
Kiosks with computers that have video capacity should be placed in convenient locations throughout the community to make the Family Court system more accessible to the public. Public service announcements can promote the locations and use of the kiosks.
Information should be accessible on the court’s Facebook/Instagram page or other social networking platforms that the court uses.
The clerks and court staff, including judges and magistrates, need to be well trained in technology.
Judges and General Magistrate should be specially trained in how to use the technology of virtual hearings and how to handle documentary evidence and testimony of witnesses.
All parties participating in virtual hearings and trials should be advised to properly display their name so the court can identify each participant.
The clerk and court in each circuit should have staff that is trained to deal with technology problems. The system will have glitches and the family court system will need technology experts to quickly respond.
There are balancing interests between public access protected by the Florida Constitution and the ability to make virtual hearings accessible to the public. In some circuits and courts, only parties and their attorneys are advised how to access a virtual hearing. The Family Court System needs to work on the competing interests in providing public access to matters before the court and protecting the privacy of parties. The clerk or other designated court staff should be vigilant in protecting the privacy of parties, while simultaneously ensuring that the courts are open, as required by Florida Statutes Chapter 119 and Rule 2.420 of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration.
Contributing members of the Committee were: Facilitator Robert J. Merlin, Esquire, Cathy Cox (1st Circuit), Kim Stephens (2nd Circuit), Michelle Ardibily and Anna Kraweic (6th Circuit), Courtney Pringle (7th Circuit), Lourdes Diaz, Yumaris Pichardo, Celia Lopez Portobanco, and Hon. Diana Tennis (9th Circuit), Andrea Small and Carmen Torres (10th Circuit), Craig Fabrikant, Ph.D., Paulina Skerett and Mary Lou Cuellar-Stilo (13th Circuit), Tara Kranz (15th Circuit), Maria Gonzalez and Robert Grieper (17th Circuit), Debbie Mravic (20th Circuit), and Katrina Volker from Our Family Wizard.
For more information contact Task Force Co-Chairs: