By Scott Bassett

I recently read several newspaper clippings concerning the creation of a new family court in Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada. The Clark County Family Court is part of a statewide family court system adopted in Nevada. No, this will not be yet another in my long series of pleas for the creation of a family court system in Michigan. I have not and will not abandon the issue. However, there are many things we can do to make our courts more user friendly to families and children short of major changes in the structure of our court system. Many of these ideas are being implemented in the new Clark County Family Court.

The Clark County Family Court has an on-site child care facility for litigants who can't afford to hire sitters to watch their children while the parents appear in court. The local Police Protective Association donated $2500 to furnish the facility with toys, tables, and desks. Every working parent is aware of this country's shortage of available and affordable child care. Appearing in court for a divorce or other family-related litigation is highly stressful for any parent. The additional stress of trying to find child care for your day in court can and should be eliminated. Clark County has given us a fine example to follow.

The Clark County Family Court, even though it is in only temporary quarters (a new building to house the Court is scheduled to open in mid-1994). has three spacious lobby areas so litigants on opposite sides of a case need not be forced into undesired proximity while waiting for their hearing. The color scheme is a soothing soft pink. There are a lot of open spaces to depart from the cold institutional look of many courthouses and public buildings. Both the color scheme and the internal architecture should help avoid the unpleasant corridor confrontations with which we are all too familiar.

The courtrooms are small, but with a full complement of computer and video recording equipment. The court will use an optional imaging system to reduce paper filing and retention requirements and speed access to needed data. Here in Michigan, the Oakland County Friend of the Court has already implemented such a system.

While the Clark County innovations are a step in the right direction, even more could be done to make family court (or any court hearing family-related disputes) more accessible and user friendly. For example, every courthouse I've visited has a serious lack of private space for confidential attorney-client conferences. Stairwells, restrooms, cafeterias, and the ends of corridors are a poor substitute for small private rooms which would allow us to discuss with our clients the most important decisions they may ever make. The building housing the Livingston County Circuit Court does have private conference rooms of varying sizes adjacent to each of its two courtrooms. They are models of what is needed. Unfortunately, there are too few rooms to meet the demand on busy motion days. In my home county, Oakland, such facilities are non-existent at the courthouse and at the friend of the court annex.

Access to the basics of modem technology, such as photocopiers, fax machines, and telephones is also far too difficult in most courthouses. If the closest available photocopy or fax machine is on the fifth floor, but your motion heating or trial is on the first floor, timely use of such equipment during a five-minute recess is unlikely.

What about "night court" for people who don't have the flexibility to leave their day jobs for a hearing without forfeiting a day's pay (or worse, jeopardizing their job). None of us wants to take time from our families to attend evening hearings. But we are in business of serving our clients. Consider the custodial parent working a low-pay hourly job who must give up a day's pay, which may equal a week's child support, to attend an enforcement hearing. Or what of the non-custodial parent who jeopardizes his job and ability to continue paying support by taking another day off for court. Who is the real loser? The children, as usual. I'm not suggesting that the circuit court or friend of the court be open for business every night. However, opening a few nights each month would address a real need at minimal sacrifice, assuming night duty is rotated amongst the staff.

Although we may have policy disagreements. I deeply respect Michigan's friends of the court and their staffs tor taking on an impossible job with limited resources. As a general we, the friend of the court does an admirable job. Witness Oakland County~s new program for direct deposit of support payments into recipient's bank accounts. But why can't policy makers such as county commissioners and circuit judges recognize that our friend of the court offices represent the face of the judicial system for most members of the general public? The facilities. equipment. and staffing levels provided to the friend offices are woefully inadequate in many judicial circuits. Why. for example. in one of America's most affluent counties (Oakland), is the friend of the court forced to occupy such substandard facilities? For an office that bears the primary burden for handling our judicial system's most important cases, the surroundings are a slap in the face to us, the office's employees, and the families and children we represent. Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way. but as a taxpayer of Oakland County. I'd support a special assessment to upgrade friend of the court facilities.

I hope that the renewed emphasis in Washington on family and children's issues will trickle down (sorry) to the state and local levels. We need to demand respect for the work we do, for the families and children we represent, and for the dedicated public servants who assist us in this overwhelming task.

Posted on Sunday, May 13, 2007 at 01:40PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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