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It’s no secret that the Philadelphia court system could use additional funding and renovations, but many in the legal community believe that the domestic relations division of the family court requires immediate attention. Thursday, the Board of Governors of the Philadelphia Bar Association unanimously adopted a resolution lending the organization’s support for an initiative spearheaded by the Women’s Law Project that addresses a range of problems enumerated in the WLP’s recent, 95-page report on conditions in the domestic relations division, housed at a renovated office building at 34 S. 11th St. “The administrators in family court are very responsive, work very hard, and are particularly concerned about the number of pro se litigants,” WLP Executive Director Carol E. Tracy said, referring to the report’s finding that 85 percent to 90 percent of all litigants in custody, support and protection from abuse cases lack legal representation. “But no matter how well meaning they are, they don’t have enough to work with.” Tracy and her colleagues at the WLP hope that the bar association’s endorsement will generate steam for the initiative. Court of Common Pleas President Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson attended Thursday’s Board of Governor’s meeting to lend her support for the resolution. Among the WLP’s suggested changes: increased funding, personnel and resources; provision of assistance and information for pro se litigants; improved facilities, security, scheduling and timeliness; fulfillment of the constitutional mandate of open court; and increased public accountability about funding and resources allocation. The WLP report found that far too often, access to hearings for family members, friends and other supporters of litigants was simply non-existent. “The lack of accessibility to the courtrooms is unheard of and is not common place in the [surrounding] counties except on a case-by-case basis,” Tracy said. “It’s a very significant issue and one that is almost foundational to any other reform.” David Steerman of Dolchin Slotkin & Todd, chairman of the bar association’s family law section, said that part of the problem stems from the fact that all cases which pass through the domestic relations division must go through a phase of master’s hearings in which parties not directly related to the legal action are not allowed into the courtroom. Five months ago, that issue was somewhat resolved by the implementation of “blue seal subpoenas,” which are served on friends and family members as a means of allowing them in to the courtroom to act as a support system for the litigants. Court officials said that the number of parties allowed to enter courtrooms must be kept to a minimum. “You have to understand, in the domestic relations division, there are all kinds of family dynamics that can create a volatile situation,” said Judge Myrna P. Field, administrative judge for the family court division. “We do what we do because we have to keep the courtrooms quiet and make sure nobody gets hurt.” Field said that traditionally, incidents have routinely occurred in the division’s waiting room and in the customer service area on the first floor of the building, with occasional incidents in the courtrooms themselves. “The personnel at domestic relations do the best they can, but financial constraints keep them from having security personnel in every courtroom and waiting area they want,” said Steerman. “That’s a legitimate concern, not enough security personnel.” Field said that in response to security concerns, extra sheriffs had been placed in the waiting room and on the first floor. In addition, she said peepholes had been placed on the doors of all the courtrooms in the protection from abuse section so that passing sheriffs can monitor the situation in each room. Field said the WLP report alerted her to the potential lack of privacy in the waiting room. Previously, as mentioned in the report, litigants were forced to shout their names and case subject matters to a clerk through a window. Field said that as a result of the report, the windows had been redone to increase individual litigants’ privacy. The WLP report also noted that pro se litigants – who constitute a majority in the domestic relations division – do not receive equal treatment in the domestic relations division and are underprepared by the system for the tasks they will have to perform. Tracy pointed to the Maricopa County, Ariz., court’s pro se assistance program as a model for other systems. Pro se litigants in that county are able to use a specially designed computer system at the courthouse that generates necessary forms and provides pro se litigants with useful information for handling their own cases. But a program that advanced is likely to elude the Philadelphia system’s budgetary planning for quite some time. Joseph Cairone, court administrator for the First Judicial District, said that more money would be apportioned to the domestic relations division if the funds were available. “Filings have increased dramatically across the board, and we’re trying to address that with the current resources as best we can,” Cairone said. “We spend our money on what we agreed we would spend it on.” Among the WLP report’s assertions was that the First Judicial District’s budget frequently runs an annual surplus, which in 2002 totaled $15 million. The report complained that spending of that money is not public record and did not appear to be put toward any of the domestic relations division’s immediate needs. Cairone said that the surplus covers basic needs in all the district’s divisions. For example, the 2002 surplus went toward the replacement of all computers in the Criminal Justice Center, renovations to the courtrooms on the sixth floor of City Hall, a new criminal case management system, a new e-filing program for the municipal courts, the publishing of all notes of testimony in criminal cases on a network available to public defenders and DAs, elevator repairs at 1801 Vine St., expenses incurred during the costly sequestering of the jury for the Ira Einhorn trial, and other expenditures. Cairone added that there are numerous grants annually provided to the district, many of which are reserved solely for the family court’s use. He also said that his office provides accounting of its surplus expenditures to the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. He did not know if that agency made those records public. “I’m very glad the WLP has brought these concerns to my attention, and I don’t have any problem with their advocating changes to the court,” Field said. “But when there’s a budget involved, you have to make choices.” It may be a long time before those choices benefit the domestic relations division, but supporters of the WLP’s initiative will continue to stress the importance of the family court to the system as a whole. “This is an area that’s overburdened in family courts across the country,” Steerman said. “Often, domestic cases are at the root of actions in other systems – criminal, civil, etc. It’s sad to me that such an important area of the law is constantly underfunded.”

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