A task force reviewing the feasibility of opening Delaware Family Court proceedings recommended opening paternity, property division and alimony cases at the judges’ discretion. The task force detailed its recommendations in a report released Tuesday to members of the General Assembly.
Citing the potential negative impact on a child, the task force, as Delaware Law Weekly reported last week, also recommended that adoption, custody, visitation, third-party visitation, termination of parental rights, and guardianship and child protection hearings remain private.
The task force also recommended that judges review safety concerns of the parties; position of the child; effect public access may have on a proceeding, and the opinion of a medical or behavioral expert before opening a case to the public.
More than 30 members of the public provided input to the task force, with the majority recommending that Family Court remain closed, according to the report.
The task force also recommended the Delaware courts provide members of the public with guidance on filing documents in Family Court because many of the litigants are pro se.
David L. Ladov, co-chair of the family law practice group at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, handles family law disputes in Pennsylvania. He said the task force’s expected recommendation of closing cases impacting children, but opening other hearings, creates a good balance.
“I commend the task force for proposing a distinction between child issues and other issues that may not impact a child,” he said. “I think that is a good way of delineating a distinction.”
Ladov added that he supports keeping closed all Family Court proceedings.
“These matters are private, and what the heck does John Q. Public need to listen to someone else’s divorce, property dispute, child support hearing,” Ladov said.
Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin, a partner at Weber Gallagher, also practices family law in Pennsylvania. She agreed all Family Court proceedings should be closed, even if the hearings do not involve children.
“I have to say that watching people go through the tragedies of their own lives, you wonder how anyone would benefit by knowing about it,” she said. “I don’t see the value in someone feasting on other people’s misery. If someone wants to see drama, they should go watch a soap opera.”
Ladov said he also liked the task force’s likely proposal of giving judges the authority to close Family Court hearings even if the General Assembly does ultimately decide to open divorce and other proceedings.
“I like the concept of leaving openness up to the judge,” Ladov said. “If a judge feels there is a safety issue involved and it is not in the state’s best interest to have an open courtroom, why do it?”
“I have often asked for the record to be sealed or the courtroom closed,” he added.
Ladov said a judge would likely close the court if safety to the parties were paramount. One example he used was if a family’s wealth and information about where their children went to school were discussed during a hearing, it could possibly inspire a kidnapping. But there are other options, such as assigning initials or pseudonyms to the parties involved. If a Family Court’s decision is appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court, the high court currently assigns pseudonyms to all parties involved to maintain confidentiality.
Gold-Bikin maintained that the best way to protect the parties is for Family Court to remain private.
“If you are going to do this, make it as narrow as possible,” she said. “Why does the public want to sit in on someone else’s tragedy? Divorce and custody are very personal, painful experiences. I see people weeping in my office. Why do they have to do it in public?”
Jeff Mordock can be contacted at 215-557-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JeffMordockTLI.