Unified Family Courts: An Interdisciplinary Framework and a Problem-Solving Approach
Traditional court systems are proving ill-equipped to handle the growing volume and complex scope of family law cases in contemporary American society. Family law matters impact every aspect of a person’s life; thus, having a court system that can holistically address such matters is vitally important.This chapter advocates that a unified family court is the most efficient problem-solving model to address the complex societal issues associated with family legal disputes. The blueprint advanced to design this court is rooted in a theoretical framework derived from the ecology of human development and therapeutic jurisprudential paradigms. This interdisciplinary framework urges family law decision-makers to consider and to aim to achieve outcomes that have positive consequences for families and children and that account for the various systems and connections that influence a family’s life. The chapter outlines a five-part blueprint to construct a unified family court and describes certain aspects of the current landscape of America’s family justice systems based upon the author’s national surveys conducted in 1998, 2002, and 2008. The unified family court blueprint consists of five parts, as follows: First, the court should have some type of specialized structure with judges who fully understand the legal and social issues facing family law litigants. The specialized court should be at the same level as a trial court of general jurisdiction, and the court should receive the same resources and support as the generalist courts. Second, the court should have comprehensive subject-matter jurisdiction over the full range of family law matters. Third, the court must have an efficient case management and case processing system with a one judge/one case or one judge/one team approach. Fourth, the court must offer an array of services, including alternative dispute resolution and other court-connected social services that accommodate the needs of the family. Finally, the unified family court should be user-friendly and accessible by all litigants, including the large proportion of self-represented family law litigants. The author advocates that through the problem-solving court template and the author’s blueprint for a unified family court, decision-makers can better serve the families and children who desperately need and deserve the help from the justice system.