Court of Appeals plans to create division to handle family cases Circuit courts in 4 counties, city would be affected

January 13, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court is poised to create a family division in the state's five largest circuit courts to consolidate everything from child-support to life-support matters.

Proponents, including Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals, say a family division is needed to efficiently manage the TC family cases, which have swelled to half the civil cases on any given circuit court docket, and to get appropriate services for the families.

Because the emotionally explosive cases often sprawl across juvenile and adult courts, coordination is difficult.

Legislation to create family courts and family divisions has been circulating and failing in the General Assembly since 1990, most often stalling in the Senate because of squabbling within the judiciary over assignments and among senators over money.

In June, Bell proposed using the court's rule-making process to implement family divisions in the largest jurisdictions.

The Court of Appeals will take up the issue in a hearing at 2 p.m. today in Annapolis. It is expected to authorize changes.

The rule would assign to family divisions all divorce and custody matters, name changes, family legal-medical issues, involuntary commitments to state hospitals and paternity cases, among others.

The affected courts are those of Baltimore -- which in 1996 started a family division and is working toward the creation of a unified family court -- and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Price George's counties, which have been moving toward )) family divisions.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, Administrative Judge Clayton R. Greene Jr. said he is changing the way divorce cases are handled so that couples would go to mediation first, and court dates would be set only for issues that the parties have been unable to resolve.

"It really is a substantial type of court reform," said Barbara Babb, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor who has been among those pushing for the change.

The cost is $5.8 million, some of it coming from grants.

"We are going to be pushing for every penny that we put in," Bell said.

Each jurisdiction would have a coordinator for family support services, a new position, to link families with social workers and other services.

Depending on the amount of money available, family divisions would have services including mediation, how-to seminars for parents and mental health evaluations.

A significant roadblock was removed when the top court's rules committee proposed freeing each administrative judge to decide whether to assign the cases to one judge, to a group or through rotating assignments.

Many judges dislike handling family matters because the cases are emotional, and the parties, often continually at odds, keep returning to court.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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