Helpful Resources for Courts Drowning in Domestic Relations Cases
August 16, 2011 by Loretta Oleksy
Judges with domestic relations jurisdiction are well aware of the time and resources required to manage family law caseloads, particularly the ever-increasing numbers of cases in which the parties appear without lawyers. This article discusses some resources which are available to help courts manage domestic relations caseload and improve outcomes for litigants.
Since 2003, courts have been authorized to fund local domestic relations Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) programs through a local ADR fee. (IC 33–23–6 et seq.) The enabling statute is modeled after a pilot program first developed by Allen Circuit Court Judge Tom Felts. A majority of courts exercising domestic relations jurisdiction in the county may decide to start an ADR program and charge a $20.00 fee to a party filing a petition for legal separation, paternity or dissolution of marriage. The fee is deposited into a county alternative dispute resolution fund which must be used for low income litigants and must foster domestic relations ADR, including mediation, reconciliation, non-binding arbitration, and parental counseling. Litigants with pending charges or a conviction for certain crimes relating to domestic violence are excluded from participating in these programs.
Mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution have been shown to be effective case management tools in contentious dissolution cases, particularly for self-represented litigants. Not only can cases be resolved earlier through the use of ADR, but the process also gives litigants a model to resolve future disputes on their own, decreasing the court’s post-decree caseload. Consider the experience of Allen Circuit Court, which was the original pilot court for ADR legislation. The court’s pilot project demonstrated that domestic relations cases were wrapped up faster when referred to mediation at the time of provisional hearing. There was both a shorter wait for trial—8 months instead of 15 for trials exceeding one half day—and a 53% decrease in the number of days from filing to decree. Today, 27 counties have adopted ADR plans in accordance with the statute. Last year, there was at least a partial settlement in over 75% of the cases accepted by these plans.
Information about how to start an ADR program is available on the Indiana judiciary website at courts.in.gov/adr. Essentially, courts must first submit a plan to the Division of State Court Administration in line with the format developed by the Indiana Judicial Conference Domestic Relations Committee. The plan has to be approved by the Division (ADR Rule 1.11), and an annual ADR program report must be filed with the Judicial Conference.
As a practical matter, in order for a local ADR program to succeed, it is critical to cultivate the local family law bar at the outset and get its commitment and support, but the Bench must provide the leadership. The Bar will appreciate being asked for input, and will provide useful information and assistance. ADR does work in family law cases, and the 27 local ADR programs provide solid evidence of that. If there are no trained and certified domestic relations mediators in your county, don’t despair. ADR funds may be used to pay for the training of mediators, who must agree to provide a certain number of pro bono mediations in exchange for their training. It is also important to keep in mind that the enabling statute allows for the use of Senior Judges as mediators.
In addition to developing ADR programs, courts with family law caseloads could seek Family Court Project grants to develop innovative programs and processes for family law cases. After more than 10 years of operation, the Family Court Project is getting a makeover. The project participants and the steering committee went through a series of exercises developing a vision for the project’s future. Based on a survey instrument completed by the project participants and discussions during focus groups and annual meetings, the Supreme Court approved a shift in the focus of the project, which initially centered on enhancing information sharing about cases and litigants. With the continued successful deployment of the Odyssey case management system (CMS) and its party based system, information sharing, once difficult, is now routine. Beginning with the 2012 grant cycle, the Family Court Project goals will shift to focus more on innovative programming in the areas of access to justice, alternative dispute resolution/early case management, and court-related services. In several of these types of programs, courts can use senior judges to not only conduct ADR but also help facilitate early case management.