By Leslie Dunn, Deputy Director of Children & Families Division | Office of Court Services
The Indiana Supreme Court established the Indiana Innovation Initiative on September 24, 2019. As part of the Initiative, they created the Family Law Taskforce to evaluate existing research on court reform, strategies to improve court processes, and the impact of innovation in other states, and then provide a written report with findings and recommendations. Chaired by Court of Appeals Judge Elizabeth Tavitas—with members including judges, law professors, mediators, family law practitioners, and Office of Judicial Administration employees—the taskforce conferred with experts from around the country to educate members and create the framework for their recommendations.
Family law touches the most central aspects of Hoosier lives. The decisions made in family courts have a dramatic and lasting impact on families and children. The reforms outlined in the Family Law Taskforce Recommendations are proven strategies to improve access to justice in family law cases.
The report will be provided to the Supreme Court for consideration. In its report, the taskforce incorporates research from the National Center for State Courts, Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Conference of Chief Justices, and Conference of State Court Administrators. But the foundation of the recommendations are the Principles for Family Justice Reform outlined by the Family Justice Initiative; their 13 principles are organized into four main sections:
- Problem-solving approach
- Triage family case filings with mandatory pathway assignments
- Training and stakeholder partnerships
- Data collection, evaluation, and technology innovation
These principles provide courts validated, data-informed strategies for improving how they process family law cases, with the premise that courts ultimately must be leaders in ensuring access to family justice and managing cases toward timely resolutions.
In March 2021, the taskforce submitted to the Innovation Initiative its final report, including recommendations for consideration by the Supreme Court. The first five recommendations are considered by the taskforce to be essential for reform.
Case management standards (#1) implement timeframes or “model time standards” for pretrial conferences, discovery, and disposition of family law cases. Triage of family law cases (#2)—often used in conjunction with case management standards—utilizes three types of pathways to group cases based on their characteristics and needs.
- A “streamlined” pathway is for cases that require minimal court resources and benefit from swift resolution.
- A “tailored services” pathway is for cases that require more court resources but less than judicial/specialized cases.
- A “judicial/specialized” pathway is for cases involving high conflict, domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse or mental health issues and require a greater degree of judicial involvement.
Triage can be even more effective if our family and juvenile judges and staff receive trauma-informed training (#4) so they can better recognize the signs and dynamics of trauma such as domestic violence, child abuse, and substance abuse. Trauma-informed training also helps courts develop measures that can be taken to promote a trauma-responsive process and environment and can help ensure these more complex cases are in the “judicial/specialized” pathway.
Online dispute resolution (#3) can provide a set of tools for family law litigants to communicate and negotiate with one another—with or without the assistance of a mediator—in order to reach agreement on some or all of the issues in dispute. Improved resources for self-represented litigants (#5) can include toolkits for judges, clerks, judicial staff, librarians, and litigants and a definition of the distinction between legal information and legal advice to help better guide these litigants.
Participants in family law cases could also benefit from a rule on informal family law trials (#18)—similar to summary hearings and involving a simplified trial and hearing process. Adoption of a statewide rule on informal family law trials would make informal family law trials available to all litigants and promote consistency in use. This rule can be used in conjunction with triaged cases for those on the “streamlined” or “tailored services” pathways.
The taskforce recommends improving oversight of Guardians ad litem (#6) by:
- developing guidelines and a code of ethics for GALs in family law and guardianship cases, including qualifications and training requirements and a better definition of their roles and responsibilities
- offering free training on the guidelines in exchange for pro bono appointments—to address the shortage of available GALs
Technology plays a big role in improving our family law procedures. Hearing reminders in criminal cases are currently sent to defendants by text message, and the taskforce proposes expanding the use of these reminders to family law cases (#10). Providing a web-based financial declaration form (#11) to be completed through a guided interview would increase the accuracy, consistency, and timeliness of submitting the form. And an update to the Indiana Parenting Time Calendar (#12)—offering alternative parenting schedules, the ability to add extracurricular activities and medical appointments, and an instructional video—would improve the user-friendliness of the tool.
The recommendations aim to make family law matters in Indiana’s justice system more efficient, less expensive, and easier to navigate, while continuing to ensure that justice is fairly administered, and the rights of all litigants are protected. The recommendations are designed to assist family law judges and lawyers—and in turn, litigants—to resolve these matters and inflict less trauma on families and children. The final recommendation of the taskforce is to develop a roadmap for reform (#19) and establishing an ongoing, action-oriented group to implement these innovations to improve family law proceedings for Indiana’s children and families.