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What things aggravate you the most? Is it having to tell your story time and time again without ever being heard? Is it having to pay money for services which deliver no result? Or, are you frustrated by being forced to deal with people who scare you or abuse you? Does being torn between the demands of your office and the demands of your family bother you? Does loss of time from your work and resulting lost wages drive you nuts?
Every one of the above frustrations is experienced by litigants who are dependent upon the family court system to resolve their problems. A fully contested divorce in the City of Philadelphia involving abuse, custody, equitable distribution, temporary and permanent support and special relief takes at a minimum fourteen different hearings before fourteen different individuals.
A child who has been adjudicated dependent and put in a foster home and then is found delinquent for a relatively minor offense such as disorderly conduct is subject to the input of two separate bureaucracies, the juvenile delinquency division of the Court and the abuse and neglect services of the Department of Human Services. Throughout the proceedings, families have to tell their story over and over again to new and unfamiliar hearing officers, intake workers, masters, judges, case workers and probation officers. Rarely is there efficiency and continuity.
On the divorce side, if a single mom needs both temporary alimony and counsel fees to effectively prosecute her claim for equitable distribution, her attorney must file separate petitions which are heard by separate individuals at different times. The counsel fee issue will be listed first before a judge who has between ten and thirty cases listed for that day and who may only have the time to give summary attention to the working spouse's earning capacity and the stay-at-home mom's child-rearing obligations. As a result, counsel fees are likely to be set at a minimum amount, barely enough to pay for the cost of going to court.
Then that mother must appear in another courtroom where a master will hear her request for temporary alimony. If the request is for spousal support, she must first go before a hearing officer and then a master. Every proceeding requires presentation of basically the same facts and arguments.
Frequently, masters in equitable distribution (these masters are different individuals than the masters who hear requests for temporary alimony) hold numerous pre-hearing conferences and will continue a case repeatedly, resulting in the parties losing many days of work but achieving no resolution of their problems. In Delaware County, if a mom files for contempt for the dad's failure to pay support, she first has to go to a failure to comply hearing before a master who does not have the ability to send the dad to jail. The next hearing is before a judge on another day. If the dad has filed a defensive counter petition to reduce support after the master's hearing, that will be heard in a different courtroom before another master. There are many opportunities for inconsistent and conflicting orders.
In Chester County, it costs almost a thousand dollars for filing fees for a fully contested divorce: $150.00 for filing the Complaint, $50.00 for filing a custody agreement, $508.00 for a Special Master to hear equitable distribution, $105.00 to get a protracted support hearing listed. If Exxon or Conrail want to file and have a full jury trial over several weeks, if not months, it would only cost the company less than one hundred dollars to file a complaint.
Thus, the number of days that one has to appear in court combined with the cost in legal fees, filing fees and lost wages simply makes it very nearly impossible for most people to obtain an adequate hearing and resolution of their rights in a family matter.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association has passed a Resolution endorsing the concept of a one family/one adjudication unit system which would create teams of hearing officers, masters and judges. All matters relating to a family including dependency and delinquency issues for the children and support, divorce and abuse issues for the parents would be assigned to one unit. Thus, that unit would develop a history relating to the family and could consolidate the claims of the various members of the family so that there case would not be fragmented and heard on different days. The members of the family would not have to repeat their story time and time again to deaf ears. The taxpayer would be saved money. A one family/one adjudication unit system would provide judges with a support staff to implement the judges' policies, assist the judges in making mathematical calculations relevant to the economic issues presented and conciliate custody and intrafamily disputes. The family would be accountable to the Court and the Court would be accountable to the taxpayer.
There are many things which need to be done in order to accomplish this result. First, the Supreme Court Rules Committee which is responsible for creating the current multitude of procedural tunnels must be informed of the problems which clients of the system face.
Also, the state legislature must allocate dollars for the computerization of the docket and filing systems which will force the unification of the Court and more economy and accuracy in record keeping. There is a great need for conferences, education, data processing and human resource support for judges. It is extremely difficult to deal with people in crisis. The providers of services for people in crisis need support. Finally, the private sector, in particular, the corporate world, could reach out its hand and provide support in the form of focus groups, management training and technical computer support to the court system.
The court system can become more consumer friendly and accountable. Our children will benefit because it is the children who suffer most when their parents are taxed to the max by a system which depletes them financially, frustrates them emotionally and totally defies logic.
I conveniently represent clients in the Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties, the towns of Wayne, Radnor, Philadelphia, King of Prussia, Paoli, Devon, Berwyn, Newtown Square, Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Ardmore, Lower Merion, Media, Wallingford, and Swarthmore, and throughout Pennsylvania.
© 2015 by Elizabeth L. Bennett, Esquire. All rights reserved.
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