Unified Family Court Pilot Project (proposed)
“One family – one judge”
Many families in Shelby County face multiple jurisdictional or legal needs and must navigate a complicated court system. The Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth and community partners are hopeful that the Tennessee General Assembly will pass legislation permitting Shelby County to operate a Unified Family Court Pilot Project in the very near future. For the first time, Shelby County would offer “one family, one judge.”
What is a unified family court?
A unified family court is defined by the American Bar Association as a single court system with specially-trained judges that address legal, social and emotional issues in a holistic way with linkage to social services and resources from a case management team, to provide a user-friendly environment which better addresses the needs of children and their families in a comprehensive manner. Domestic violence, child support, divorce, delinquency, dependency, neglect, custody and other family matters can be under “one roof” – under the authority of one court.
Families in need
Families in trouble come to the attention of the courts in a variety of ways: through divorce, domestic violence, abandonment or abuse of children, or misbehavior of children. Such families may weave from courtroom to courtroom caught in a process that depletes time, money, and energy, and yet never really addresses the core of the problem. Ironically, children who suffer most as a result of this phenomenon are the unintended beneficiaries of our family courts. In our present system, no single court or agency has a complete picture of the family and the relationships that affect its members. Because the child is the center of the concerns of the family court, every legal issue affecting a child should be resolved in one court, before one judge who can then coordinate agencies and access all the services that might be available. The underlying philosophy of such a court is called therapeutic justice. See Claudia Wright, “Representation of Children in a Unified Family Court System in Florida,” University of Florida Journal of Law & Public Policy 14, no. 2 (spring 2003): 179-192.
Local and national recommendations for unified family courts
The American Bar Association recommends, “At a minimum, a unified family court should hear matrimonial (divorce, separation, annulment, division of property, alimony, custody, visitation, child support), domestic violence (protective orders, contempt proceedings), child protection (abuse and neglect, placement, termination of parental rights, adoption), family crisis (truant youth, runaways, unmanageable children) and juvenile delinquency (offenses which are statutorily defined and vary by state) cases.” See American Bar Association, Unified Family Courts- Justice Delivered, 2002.
The Juvenile Court Ad Hoc Committee recommended that a Family Court Task Force be established because “the committee recognized that the ‘current local fragmented court structure’ fails to address the needs of families in crisis.” (Juvenile Court Ad Hoc Committee report, page 17). The Shelby County Family Court Task Force recommended implementation of a Unified Family Court Pilot Project. See Shelby County Family Court Task Force Report, March 2008.
Memphis/Shelby County Operation: Safe Community’s action plan report states, “Our current local fragmented court structure, as it deals with domestic violence cases, does not adequately meet the needs of victims or families in crisis.” The plan further recommends consideration of a “dedicated Integrated Domestic Violence or Family Court.” See Operation: Safe Community – A Strategic Initiative to Reduce Crime in Memphis & Shelby County, 2006.
In the report on Juvenile Court by consultants from the National Center for State Courts, the first recommendation is that cases be assigned “to judicial officers under a one family/one judge case assignment system. . . When a single judicial officer hears all matters related to a single family, (he or she gains) knowledge of the family’s circumstances and their past response to court orders, are able to identify behavior patterns, and can help to ensure there is consistency and continuity in court orders and case plans. One-judge/one family also helps to minimize the number of times a person is required to appear in court because it allows for multiple cases for one individual or family to be heard together. It is the responsibility of the judicial officer to ensure that all cases receive due process, and judicial officers are trained to hear evidence impartially even when they have heard previous cases regarding the same youth/family.” See National Center for State Courts, A Brief Assessment of the Juvenile Court System in Shelby County, Tennessee, 2007.