If Maine wants to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its family court system, it needs more judges and clerks because of a rise in the number of people representing themselves in court because they cannot afford to hire attorneys, according to a report submitted by the Family Division Task Force.
Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley has said in her annual address to the Legislature in February that about 75 percent of the people who appear in family court do not have lawyers.
The report of the task force did not specify how many employees it would take to address the problems it undercovered during its yearlong investigation. It also did not state how much money would be needed to make the recommended improvements.
The task force was not asked by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which administers Maine’s court system, to assess whether resources were sufficient, but the report did address the matter.
“As with the judicial branch generally, the family division is under-resourced,” the report concluded. “The task force acknowledges that some of the recommendations contained herein would require the state of Maine to appropriate and to allocate additional resources, including hiring the necessary [district court] judges, magistrate [judges] and clerks, to implement all of the recommendations necessary to advance the family division’s mission.”
The stated goal of the task force, which began its work in July 2013, was to review the processing of family matter cases and to recommend changes that will best serve the needs of children and families, according to the report.
Members of the task force, headed by District Court Judge Daniel Driscoll, held eight public hearings across the state seeking input from people who have been involved in family court matters, attorneys, clerks and other stakeholders. A public hearing on the recommendations, some of which can be implemented by the court and some of which would need legislative approval, was held before Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices on Thursday at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Augusta.
The 22-page report includes recommendations that, if implemented, would expand the authority of magistrate judges, who handle many but not all family matters; require coordination between Probate Courts and District Courts when parallel cases are pending in both courts; develop better resource materials, including videos, to help people representing themselves understand the legal process; and create a volunteer courthouse assistance program so that experienced family attorneys could assist litigants without representation.
Individuals who have been through the family court system made some specific recommendations to the justices based on their experiences.
Cynthia Martinez-Edgar of Orono suggested in a written comment posted on the court system’s website that litigants with attorneys give judges copies of their bills. That would help the judge determine if a family is falling into economic hardship because of legal fees.
“Having the actual dollar amount in front of the judge and having that available to compare with what each newly single-income family is earning and taking into account the cost to maintain a home and provide for a child may help clarify the economic reality for families that have to go through the court process,” she said in the comment.
Martinez-Edgar also suggested that lawyers who “assist in promoting discord between families by pursuing false claims without any actual evidence provided by their client” should be ordered to go through a program similar to the one divorcing parents must attend.
“The focus should be how do we get this family with shared parental rights and responsible working together for the best interest of the child,” she said in the comment.
Dr. Jerome Collins of Kennebunkport has been a n advocate for change in the family court system. He said that the task force, made up primarily of judges, lawyers, clerks and other stakeholders, did not include enough Mainers who have had been through a contentious divorce or in a custody battle without an attorney.
“We’d recommend a legislative audit of the ‘pro se’ problem, executed by a respected government agency with the capability of doing this,” he said in written testimony submitted to the justices. “OPEGA [Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability] comes to mind. The aim is not to embarrass or cause pain to anyone. It is to obtain an objective analysis of the ‘pro se’ system and to suggest comprehensive systemic corrections.”
There is no deadline by when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices must act on the recommendations. Bills must be submitted to the Legislature in early January.