Unified Family Courts

Many cases involving families are heard in disparate courts involving different types of proceedings. The current divorce process may involve up to 14 different hearings before eight different judges (Ross, 1998). A unified family court remedies this problem and has jurisdiction over all, or most, cases involving children and families and includes a broad range of cases including matrimonial, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, and child protection matters (Kuhn, 1998; Town, 1998).

Typically this includes all juvenile cases (delinquency, status, detention, waiver and child abuse), divorce, paternity, adoption, nonsupport, guardianship of adults and children, civil restraining orders, civil commitment in mental health cases, and in some jurisdictions crimes within the family ranging from domestic violence to intra-familial murder. Traditionally, one judge hears all cases affecting one family and the judge has a broad array of services to assist these families. (Town, 1998, p. 671)

Although broader in scope than drug and domestic violence courts, a unified family court utilizes a 'one-team-to-one family' approach to managing all cases that involve a particular family (Kuhn, 1998,p. 78). The underlying principle is therapeutic justice, empowering families with skills development, assisting them, in resolving their own disputes, enhancing coordination of court events within the justice system, providing direct services to families when and where they need them, and building a system of dispute resolution that is more cost efficient, user-friendly, and time conscious. (Kuhn, 1998, p. 68)

Because family court cases are often complex, emotional, and volatile, special expertise on the part of the judge and his/her staff is desirable. Many judges believe they serve in a variety of roles including those of 'adjudicator, mediator/peacemaker, convener, clinician, and teacher' (Town, 1998, p. 673).

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