The unified family court is a single court system with comprehensive subject-matter jurisdiction over all cases involving children and families, meaning the court has the power to hear cases such as divorce, custody, child support, marital property, alimony, adoption, paternity, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect and juvenile delinquency, among others. The court coordinates efforts to produce resolutions tailored to an individual family's legal, personal, emotional and social needs. Unified family courts are equipped to respond to the many and complex problems in families’ lives.
A basic concept of unified family courts, grounded in therapeutic jurisprudence, is that the family justice system must aim to improve the lives of families and children by addressing both the legal issues in family law cases and the non-legal issues, such as substance use, mental health problems and poverty.
In a unified family court, judges consider and resolve matters affecting a family through a holistic understanding of the families' and children's lives. A unified family court draws upon services and community resources to help families address their needs and solve their problems.
A unified family court is user-friendly and accessible to everyone, including the large numbers of self-represented litigants in the family justice system. The unified family court model results in increased court efficiency; more coordinated and effective decision-making; and cost savings for clients, attorneys and the court system.
A Blueprint for a Unified Family Court
The American Bar Association has recommended since 1994 that all jurisdictions establish unified family courts. In addition, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts advocate for the creation of unified family courts. Yet, many states have not adopted this model.
Professor Barbara A. Babb, the founder and director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC), was an early proponent of unified family courts and continues to be a leading scholar and advocate for an interdisciplinary model of a unified family court.
Professor Barbara Babb’s scholarship outlines a blueprint for a unified family court, which includes the following key features and characteristics:
- A specialized court structure—either a separate court or a division or department of an existing court—established at the same level and receiving the same resources as a trial court of general jurisdiction
- Comprehensive subject-matter jurisdiction over the full range of family law cases, including juvenile delinquency and child welfare
- A case management/processing system involving early, hands-on and continuing contact with each family law case
- A judicial assignment system where the family appears before one judge for resolution of the entire case, or where the same case management team coordinates the family’s case each time the family utilizes the family justice system
- An array of court-supplied or court-connected social services that meet the families' and children’s non-legal needs related to their family law issues
- A user-friendly court accessible to all family law litigants, including self-represented litigants
Read an article on unified family courts and the blueprint for establishing them from the first issue of CFCC’s Unified Family Court Connection.