The Indiana Supreme has adopted a new rule of trial procedure that provides trial courts special flexibility in handling multiple cases involving the same family or household. Trial Rule 81.1, which became effective January 1, 2012, is based on the special rules, which have been available to courts participating in the Indiana Family Court Projects since the inception of the project in 1998. After the Family Court Project proved to be a success, the Indiana Supreme Court asked the Judicial Conference Juvenile Justice Improvement Committee and the Indiana Supreme Court Rules Committee to see if there are ways for all Indiana trial courts to avail themselves of the special Family Court Project Rules. Both committees endorsed the expansion of the Family Court Project Rules to all trial courts, and, after a public comment period, the Rules Committee proposed to the Supreme Court that it adopt T.R. 81.1.
Under certain conditions, Trial Rule 81.1 allows a judge to use “Family Procedures” and exercise jurisdiction over all cases involving the same family or household (as defined). Family Procedures are defined in the rule as the coordination of proceedings and processes, and information sharing among cases in a court or courts involving family or household members. The goal of the new rule is to avoid uninformed or inconsistent rulings in multiple cases involving one family or household and therefore better serve children and families in our courts.
Using the new rule:
- When a court intends to use Family Procedures for a case, it must enter an order notifying all parties to this case of the court’s intentions.
- A party has 15 days after notice of this order is sent to object to his or her case being selected to be heard using Family Procedures.
- This court order also affects a party’s ability to request change of venue from the judge. Only those motions for change of venue permitted by Indiana Trial Rule 76 may be granted for cause once this notice is sent.
- Within 30 days after a case is selected, the court must provide a list of all cases the court will hear using Family Procedures to each party to all these cases.
- The court can set concurrent hearings on some issues and rule on the admissibility of evidence for each separate case.
- When using Family Procedures, a judge must choose whether to maintain the separate integrity and docket numbers for each case but hear the cases together or consolidate a family’s cases into one common case number if multiple cases are being heard before one judge.
The new rule provides that cases to which Family Procedures are being applied can retain their separate case numbers OR be combined under one case number if multiple cases are being heard before one judge.
The recommended best practice is for courts to maintain the separate case numbers for the cases pulled into Family Proceedings.
The use of common case numbers could pose challenges to court case management systems, has the potential to skew a court’s statistics, could cause confusion as to the burden and proof, and also could confuse parties on deadlines for when to file appeals and other pleadings. The confidentiality of the records in cases joined under one case number can also become very problematic. Under Administrative Rule 9, the parties to a case have access to all the records in the case (except in certain situations such as protective orders). The new rule provides records excluded from public access remain confidential to the added parties, even if all cases are consolidated into a single case. This means that the record keeper will need to remember somehow which parties in a case can have access to which records.
For all of the above reasons, the Division of State Court Administration recommends that cases not be joined into one case number. This will mean that the court will have to enter similar orders and make entries in each “bundled” case file and CCS.
If a court decides to consolidate multiple cases into one, the court should pick one case that will remain as the primary case. The court must enter an order of consolidation and cause the order to be filed in the case filed for each consolidated case and noted on the CCS of each case. At the time of consolidation, the court must enter a statistical disposition for each of the case numbers except the one remaining. Only one case will remain as pending. The others must be counted as being disposed by “transferred out.”