Family courts need to adapt to modern families, new study shows

Alicia Davis
Principal Court Management Consultant
(303) 308-4331

Williamsburg, Va., Oct. 4, 2018 – In family courts, where judges hear cases involving divorces, custody matters and protection orders, a lot is at stake, but cases take longer than they should, and courts don’t have good enough information to respond to families’ needs, according to a first-of-its-kind study that looks at family court cases in 10 large counties nationwide.

The study also shows that today’s families are less traditional and are less likely to include a married couple, and that most litigants don’t hire a lawyer.  

The study is part of a project by the National Center for State Courts, a non-partisan organization that works with state courts as well as courts in other countries. The project, called the Family Justice Initiative, intends to help family courts operate more efficiently by establishing a set of proven practices to resolve cases. The study represents the completion of the first step in the project.

Here are the study’s key findings: 

Most cases in the study were uncontested, but contested and uncontested cases surprisingly took about the same amount of time. This fact fuels the public perception that the legal system takes too long to achieve a meaningful resolution, and it undercuts public confidence in the courts. 

About one in four family court cases will continue to reopen, and reopened cases are more likely to involve minor children. Those cases tend to recycle through the courts until those children came of age. 

Family court data is inadequate and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do effective case management. Many data systems aren’t a good fit with domestic relations cases and don’t provide judges, lawyers, mediators and others with enough information to help litigants.

The next stage of the project will involve using the findings to develop recommendations through the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators, the highest levels of court leadership.  The recommendations will then be tested at four “pilot project” courts, which will be identified in February or March.  

NCSC would like to thank the State Justice Institute, which funded the study, and our partners, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit court organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts. Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, NCSC provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation’s state courts.


National Center for State Courts, 300 Newport Avenue, Williamsburg, VA  23185-4147