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A Contra Costa judge is coming up with ideas to relieve a family law court calendar filled with pro per divorce litigants. The question now is whether there will be money to fund them. Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin, who took over the court’s family law division earlier this year, has already adopted a new trial scheduling order and created a proposal geared toward having 90 percent of unrepresented divorce litigants resolve their cases through mediation. The more aggressive part of Baskin’s proposal involves adding staff and resources to help pro per litigants with their cases. The judge has already created a new trial scheduling order that appears geared toward moving cases at a faster clip. “It takes months for [litigants] to get court trials,” Baskin said. “In that intervening time period, it’s not healthy for families to have their situations unresolved. “If you can get the pro pers resolved through a mediation process that’s non-confrontational, that deals with all of their questions and provides answers for them, it’s a much more responsive system,” he said. So far, Baskin has attracted supporters from the local bar and bench. Presiding Judge Thomas Maddock, who gave Baskin’s proposal the green light, is one. “My goal as presiding judge is to make all the operational areas of this court more efficient,” Maddock said. “[Baskin] actually had read some articles and brought some information to me. I said, ‘Yes, go ahead and work on it.’” Maddock said the goals of the program were two-fold: expedite services and complete cases for unrepresented litigants, and free up court time for the cases that do require litigation. Just over 4,000 family law petitions were filed in Contra Costa County during the 2003-2004 fiscal year. Pro per cases, where either one or both parties are not represented by an attorney, make up at least 50 percent of this cases, Baskin said, and that figure has been growing. Baskin and Maddock declined to discuss the proposal in detail, saying it wasn’t finished and that the ability to fund it remains largely unknown. Yet some attorneys say the family law system needs all the help it can get. “No one knows how to tame this beast completely, and it’s really good Judge Baskin is working on it,” said Walnut Creek attorney Thomas Wolfrum. “It’s a problem that desperately needs to be fixed.” But he and other attorneys would like to know more. “I think the concern is, how is this going to play out,” said Walnut Creek solo Dana Santos. “What is the impact? “Family law attorneys are really committed to people who don’t have much money,” she continued. “We’re really dealing with people who are mortgaging their house to pay us.” The new order requires litigants to attach all their evidence to their declarations; submit a “joint statement of contested issues” to the court; meet to discuss settling the case not less than two days before trial; and prepare binders of exhibits for trial, with copies for both sides. The petitioner must also make a good-faith settlement demand in writing before any settlement conference. Maddock expects to know what changes can be made when the court budget is finalized in October. Meanwhile, Baskin is keeping his expectations modest. “I can only tell you we’re like all other family law courts in all other counties,” he said. “We’re all overburdened and we’re all underfunded. “I’m hopeful,” he added. “But I was hopeful it would be done this year. Now I’m hoping it’ll be done over two years.”

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