The High Performance Court and Divorce Case Triage

The Family Justice Initiative 

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) has created the Family Justice Initiative to evaluate and improve the way courts handle domestic relations cases, including cases involving divorce, dissolution of marriage, property distribution, spousal support, and the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities.

 

After achieving great success with the Civil Justice Initiative, the State Justice Institute decided to expand funding for the Family Justice Initiative as well. This 36-month initiative is a collaborative effort between NCSC and a number of different organizations committed to all aspects of family justice. Several of these organizations were instrumental in the success of the Civil Justice initiative, specifically the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA). Other partners include the Institute for the Advancement of the Legal System (IAALS), and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ).

 

The Family Justice Initiate involves three phases:

1. Assessing the current landscape and best practices in domestic relations cases.

2. Extending and modifying the Civil Justice Initiative recommendations to address domestic relations cases.

3. Implementing and evaluating pilot projects in four jurisdictions.

 

Although the Family Justice Initiative has begun by focusing on domestic relations cases, the long-term trajectory of the initiative will embrace a holistic view of family law matters and aims to develop a comprehensive set of resources in areas including child welfare, dependency and neglect, juvenile justice triage, and child support.

 

Domestic Relations Triage Across the Nation

Courts from all across the country are seeking new ways to manage and resolve difficult, emotionally-charged cases in ways that meet the needs of families. The case triage process allows domestic relations courts to meaningfully differentiate cases according to specific factors, making it possible to quickly and effectively resolve uncontested divorces, while preserving valuable court resources for complex and highly contested cases which need greater attention.

Tom Clarke’s paper, Triage Protocols for Divorce and Child Custody Cases, outlines several other profiles used across the country to improve the way courts handle domestic relations cases. For example, some courts have begun to allow parties to apply for and receive divorce decrees online.  Clarke’s paper explores the various methods of triage and presents considerations for future evaluation. Clarke also describes the Alaska program, a vanguard in domestic relations triage, which has court staff review case filings to identify cases that are appropriate for an “Early Resolution” process.  More information about these programs is available in Clarke’s complete article, which is included to the right below our “Publications” tab.

Colorado is actively testing triage processes now.  The State Court Administrator’s Office enlisted the expertise of NCSC to develop and implement a case triage process that leverages Colorado’s existing strengths in domestic relations management.  During the testing process of early Spring 2018, Colorado intends to test a triage tool that draws from national and international innovations according to local case management strategies.  The goal is to maximize services and court time based on case needs, thereby improving the management of domestic relations cases.  An evaluation of the processes will be available in Summer 2018. 

A Court Connected Community will be launched in February 2018 to encourage dialogue and innovation among court and family professionals. To join this, please email Alicia Davis at adavis@ncsc.org to receive an invitation. 

 

Divorce Case Triage:  Why It’s Important

Many courts are seeking new ways to better manage and resolve difficult, emotionally-charged divorce cases in ways that more appropriately meet the needs of individual families. By applying the principles of the High Performance Court Framework, a domestic relations court can develop and implement a triage process to meaningfully differentiate cases, making it possible to streamline the process for uncontested divorces, while preserving limited court staff time and resources for contested cases and families needing greater attention.

Many courts process divorce cases linearly, each case moving through the same set of prescribed steps. In this model, families are presented with a tiered set of services that specify how a case will move from initial contact with the court through progressively more intrusive and directive services and proceedings. This approach burdens those where both sides are largely in agreement and just want to have the case resolved in timely fashion, while siphoning resources away from families that may truly benefit from enhanced services.

A number of courts – some very urban, with high numbers of filings – have found a better way to address families coming before the court. Miami, Florida and the State of Connecticut provide examples of jurisdictions that have developed triage processes to link available resources to the families who most need them. Triage has also been implemented and studied in Nova Scotia, Toronto and New Zealand. NCSC studied these models then worked to deconstruct elements of successful divorce case triage in order to develop tools that could be applied nationally, in concert with the High Performance Court Framework.

Developing a Divorce Case Screening Tool

To support courts interested in pursuing divorce case triage, the National Center for State Courts, in collaboration with the states of Colorado, Ohio, and Utah, received funding from the State Justice Institute to develop a model screening tool. With guidance and input from an advisory committee comprised of domestic relations experts, the NCSC designed a screening instrument that courts can use to determine which families need little to no court services.

See the tool

This tool serves as a model or a guide to help courts identify which types of questions to ask the families, to help them determine which track a litigant should be place on and whether the litigant needs minimal or no court assistance. The ultimate purpose of the tool is to ascertain that litigants who are ready to complete the process (uncontested) do not get lost in the system or forced into services that they do not want or need. Since processes and procedures differ greatly from court to court, the tool was not designed as a one-size-fits-all instrument. Rather, the design is sufficiently flexible to be readily adapted to fit a court’s specific jurisdiction.

Read the final report on the development of the screening tool.


Additional Resources