Earlier this year, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) published Unifying Juvenile and Family Matters in Marion County, a set of recommendations for the redesign of the Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis, Indiana. This redesign is “a timely opportunity for the implementation of best practices that can better serve families facing legal challenges through the court.”
The comprehensive report, which was presented to Marion County circuit and superior court judges and administrators, covers numerous areas of court operations, including:
- Operational model and structure
- Caseflow management and triage
- Family court services and functions
- Alternative dispute resolution
- Judicial roles, governance, and training
Many of the suggestions stem from the Family Justice Initiative (FJI)—supported by IAALS and the NCSC—and its Principles for Family Justice Reform. The recommendations have an emphasis on problem-solving approaches for families, a pathway triage system that matches services to cases and parties, training and stakeholder partnerships, and the adoption of technologies that allow for better case management. The FJI principles, adopted in 2019 by the Conference of Chief Justices, seek to make family courts less adversarial, more efficient, and more responsive to the needs of families involved in litigation.
Other recommendations for Marion County include a judicial assignment system that keeps the same judge with a family throughout the duration of a case (i.e., the One Family, One Judge model), a range of court-supplied or court-connected social services that meet litigants’ critical nonlegal needs, and a user-friendly court that’s accessible to all family law litigants—including those without a lawyer. In order to increase “informed access to the legal system by providing education, information, legal forms, community referrals, and other support services to self-represented parties with family law matters,” the NCSC recommends that Marion County operate a self-help center.
To do so, the report offers IAALS’ Guidelines for Creating Effective Self-Help Information as a resource in designing “navigable and helpful resources” for Marion County court system users. Because on average 72 percent of marriage dissolution and custody cases involve at least one self-represented litigant—a trend that’s unlikely to change—the guidelines can help Marion County and others be better prepared to assist those who come to court without a lawyer.
The NCSC also covers judicial roles, governance, and training, including what should be considered when assigning judges to the family division. Citing another IAALS publication, The Modern Family Court Judge, the report outlines why judicial officers with special family-oriented training, a commitment to problem-solving, as well as several years to commit their role on the family bench are the best fit for serving families and upending the traditional adversarial nature of family law.
The divisional restructuring in Marion County—and the new Family Division operational model—will be completed in advance of the 2022 court move to an in-progress justice facility. Whether or not they’re able to incorporate all of the NCSC’s recommendations, Marion County’s implementation of any recommendations will help them provide more accessible and efficient legal services to the families that need them. And, the recommendations can serve as a blueprint for other counties considering reform of their family courts.