In re Report of Fam. Ct. Steering Comm., SC00-1410.

Citation794 So.2d 518
Decision Date03 May 2001
Docket NumberNo. SC00-1410.,SC00-1410.
PartiesIn re REPORT OF the FAMILY COURT STEERING COMMITTEE.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida

Raymond T. McNeal, Chair, Family Court Steering Committee, Ocala, FL; Terrence P. O'Connor, Chair, Family Law Rules Committee of The Florida Bar, Fort Lauderdale, FL; B. Elaine New, Senior Attorney, Department of Legal Affairs and Education, Office of the State Courts Administrator; and Nushin G. Sayfie, Assistant Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, FL, on behalf of the Governor's Task Force on Domestic Violence, for Petitioner.

Blaise Trettis, Viera, FL; Charles J. Kahn, Jr., Chair, Rules of Judicial Administration Committee, and John F. Harkness, Jr., Executive Director, The Florida Bar; Paula L. Walborsky, Tallahassee, FL; Celina Rios, Director, Family Division, Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, Miami, FL; Howard M. Camerik, President, Florida Legal Services, Inc., Boca Raton, FL; and Nancy Daniels, Public Defender, Second Judicial Circuit, Tallahassee, FL, and Bennett H. Brummer, Public Defender and John E. Morrison, Assistant Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit, Miami, FL, on behalf of the Florida Public Defender Association, Responding.

PARIENTE, J.

This matter is before the Court based on the June 29, 2000, petition filed by the Family Court Steering Committee ("Committee").1 The petition was filed in response to a directive from this Court in In re Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 633 So.2d 14, 19 (Fla.1994) ("Family Courts II"), in which this Court asked the Committee to, among other things, develop recommendations "on the characteristics of a model family court including organization, policy, procedures, staffing, resources, and linkages to the community." Through this petition, the Committee asks this Court to adopt its recommendations for a model family court for Florida. These recommendations represent several years of work by the Committee members, who have given their unanimous support and approval to the model family court proposal.2

Having reviewed the Committee's recommendations, we strongly endorse the guiding principles and characteristics of the model family court developed therein and we reaffirm our commitment to the principles we espoused in In re Report of Commission on Family Courts, 588 So.2d 586, 587 (Fla.1991) (Family Courts I) and Family Courts II. In so doing, our goal continues to be the creation of "a fully integrated, comprehensive approach to handling all cases involving children and families," Family Courts II, 633 So.2d at 17, while at the same time resolving family disputes in a fair, timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner. We also stress the importance of embracing methods of resolving disputes that do not cause additional emotional harm to the children and families who are required to interact with the judicial system. As the number of family court filings and post-judgment matters continues to skyrocket, we also must seek to enhance judicial productivity and conserve judicial resources.3 There will never be a "one size fits all" model, but the recommendations that the Committee submitted and that we endorse through this opinion represent a compilation of the best practices for the operation of a family court in Florida. Adoption of these recommendations will constitute a crucial step in enabling the judicial system to achieve these important goals.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Ten years ago, with the Legislature's creation of the Commission on Family Courts ("Commission"), this State embarked on a mission to improve the resolution of disputes within the judicial system for children and families. When it created the Commission, the Legislature directed it to: (1) develop specific guidelines for the implementation of a family law division within each judicial circuit; (2) provide recommendations for statutory, rule, and organizational changes; and (3) recommend necessary support services. See Family Courts I, 588 So.2d at 587.

The Commission submitted to this Court a detailed report emphasizing not only the implementation of a family law division within each judicial circuit, but also the need for providing support services, furnishing additional court personnel, and developing criteria for the assignment of family law judges. As one of the necessary "proper resources" to fulfill the responsibilities of a family court, the Commission included "domestic violence assistance programs; guardians ad litem to represent dependent children and children in contested custody cases; home assessment services; sufficient staff to operate enforcement of support services; and case coordination/receptionist staff." Id. at 588-89. As explained in the report:

A fully staffed mediation program is essential in these types of proceedings. It has now been clearly established that mediation can resolve a high percentage of these disputes if they are brought before a competent mediator at an early stage of the proceeding. The fact that the mediation service is court-connected is important because it presents the mediator to the parties as a person who will be fair and impartial because of being an arm of the court.
Child assessment services and enforcement of support services must be available for all types of cases within the family division. There is no justification for child assessment services that are available only in juvenile dependency matters and not available when the same type of decision is being made in a dissolution-custody proceeding. Nor is there any justification for there to be a substantial difference in the handling of enforcement of support matters for Title IV cases as distinguished from non-Title IV cases. The underlying basis for the action—that the child is not receiving support—is the same and the service should be the same.

Id. at 589.

This Court issued an opinion approving the Commission's recommendations. See id. at 586. In particular, with regard to the jurisdiction of the family division, this Court stated:

We emphasize our support for the recommendation that there be a means to assign all family court matters that affect one family, including dissolution of marriage, custody, juvenile dependency and delinquency proceedings, to one judge. In approving these recommendations, we note the need for each circuit to design a family division to best serve its particular area. Geography, population, and available facilities are all factors that must be considered in tailoring a family division to the needs of a particular circuit.

Id. at 591. Accordingly, we held that "each judicial circuit should develop a local rule establishing a family division in its circuit or a means to coordinate family law matters that affect one family if the circuit... is unable to administratively justify such a division." Id. Based upon this directive, all circuits submitted to this Court a local rule or administrative order. See Family Courts II, 633 So.2d at 16.

The local rules and administrative orders submitted by the circuits suggested that this Court needed to further clarify its intent and expectations of the family court concept. See id. Accordingly, in 1994, after receiving input from a statewide Family Court Workshop,4 the Court issued a second opinion "to further refine and implement the family court divisions of the circuit courts." Id. at 16. In that opinion, the Court emphasized that the goal of a family court was "to establish a comprehensive approach coordinating all judicial efforts in cases affecting the same family, regardless of the sometimes necessary geographical separation of courthouse facilities or the manner in which dockets for different types of cases are structured and managed." Id. at 17. In particular, the Court stated:

To better accomplish this goal, a family's interaction with the courts in all circuits shall be administratively coordinated and monitored in one unified family division, whether that interaction involves dissolutions of marriage (and attendant determinations of custody, visitation, child support, alimony, and modifications thereof), cases under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act and the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act, adoption and paternity, domestic and repeat violence, juvenile delinquency and dependency, termination of parental rights, or cases of children or families in need of supervision.

Id. The Court also emphasized that trial courts must

coordinate and maximize court resources, such as guardians ad litem, mediation, law clerks, and computer systems, for the benefit of children and families in litigation and establish necessary linkages with community-based resources, including substance abuse treatment counseling, specialized training and parenting courses, and social services.

Id. In order to accomplish these goals, the Court identified the need for a case management staff to screen, evaluate, and manage cases through the system and an administrative judge in each circuit to oversee the development of the family division. See id. In Family Courts II, the Court also created the Family Court Steering Committee to, among other things, advise the Court about the circuits' responses to families in litigation and make recommendations on the characteristics of a model family court. See id. at 18-19.5

REVIEW OF THE COMMITTEE'S RECOMMENDATIONS

Based upon that directive, the Committee developed the recommendations proposed here, which represent the Committee's concept of the best practices for a model family court in accordance with its study of nationwide trends in this area. Each of these recommendations is listed below, and the Committee's entire proposal, including the commentary for each recommendation, is set forth fully in the appendix to this opinion. We now review each of the recommendations in turn.

Recommendation # 1—Family Court Guiding Principles

The Florida Supreme Court should adopt the...

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