Family matters: short shrift in court

December 18, 1992

For all their resilience, families are complex and complicated, and nowhere are the fault lines more visible than when family matters come into contact with the judicial system.

Maryland courts rarely give judges and administrative personnel the time they need or allow them a chance to develop expertise in family law. Moreover, anyone who has gone through the thorny process of getting a divorce in Maryland, or contested custody of a child, or even watched the process of setting support payments knows that domestic cases get painfully short shrift in a court system clogged with criminal cases that must get priority.

In short, Maryland's system of dealing with domestic legal matters is broken -- and desperately needs fixing.

After a two-year examination of the problems plaguing domestic law, a task force appointed by the governor is proposing a separate court for domestic and family matters. The change would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be passed by the General Assembly and approved by the voters.

That process would in itself be slow, and the new court would be more expensive than the current system. But the separate court would serve families better. Moreover, there may well be grant money available to fund start-up costs -- a large part of the additional expense.

Unfortunately, after appointing this task force, Governor Schaefer thus far shows little interest in getting behind its recommendations. That's surprising, since the chance to initiate the process of establishing a domestic court would seem to appeal to his love of building institutions that will outlast his tenure in office. Despite the current budget crisis, it would be shortsighted to dismiss all proposals for better government.

One alternative to a separate court system would be a domestic division within the Circuit Court system. But that would take a great deal of cooperation and coordination among the various jurisdictions. And even with a separate division, domestic cases would still compete with criminal cases and other legal matters that often create an unconscionably long waiting period.

The task force report contains a number of sound recommendations and some -- like the proposal to include juvenile offenses in domestic court -- that deserve a spirited debate.

NB As things now stand, family matters get short shrift in court.

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