Fulton County Family Division finally here to stay

One day in late 1996 or early 1997 while I was Chair of the Family Law Section of the Atlanta Bar Association I received a telephone call from Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford. Judge Bedford had previously been Chair of the entire Atlanta Bar Association and was and is a proponent of lawyers and judges working together to better our court system. It was not, and still is not common for a trial lawyer to receive a call directly from a jduge. But this was important he said. Fulton County was about to announce a project which would attempt to create the first Family Court in Georgia. He told me where the announcement would be made and that lawyers, especially family lawyers were invited and should attend. I went.

I volunteered our family law section to work with the judges in any manner they desired. We then invested thousands of hours of lawyer and judge time. We met monthly (judges and lawyers). The lawyers became the scriveners of a whole new set of rules that would apply in this new family court. We debated the name of the court (Family Division, well, we tried?) and we decided the cases would no longer say him vs her, but it would now be him and her. We invited experts who had established family courts around the country to come teach us what to do. I became Chair of the American Bar Association, Family Law Section’s Family Courts Committee and the ABA, with the help of then ABA President, Bill Ide, donated many resources and much time. It was well received throughout Atlanta (1998 WSB News Story-family-court ).

But one big issue was how to create a “new” court. Well really, it was the same court with the same judges, but it was to be a new division of that court. The Supreme Court authorized it as a “Pilot Project” and I am happy to report, that after twelve successful years, the court is no longer a “temporary” pilot project (see AJC story by clicking here).

There are many stories about the development of the court, from establishing the procedures (status conferences, etc.) to the selection of judicial officers, but the overall experience, although extraordinarliy time consuming, was once in a lifetime. I was lucky enough to be a part of a new endeavor that directly affected my clients. I am a firm believer that instead of complaining about rules and processes, lawyers should be a part of the planning. If you can help create the blueprint, then you are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome. The Fulton County Family Division is by no means perfect. There will always be problems when trying to devise a formula to care for and resolve some of our most basic human issues, those of parenting, support (for food, education, etc.), health insurance and shelter. But a court strictly devoted to family law matters inherently has an advantage over courts that manage family disputes one week, murder trials another week and car wreck cases the next week. And while the court is no longer a “pilot project”, it will always be a “project” as is our entire judicial system. I was lucky enough to be a part of it when it started and fortunate enough to still practice in it as an advocate. I encourage anyone who has an opportunity to improve our system to volunteer to do so. Even the Fulton County Family Division still has a need for good lawyers. The Family Law Information Center (F.L.I.C.) which was another part of the project can always use lawyers to donate time to counsel parties who cannot afford counsel.

I am excited that the court now seems more “permanent”, but we should always encourage improvement in our system and cooperation between bench and bar. The Fulton County Family Division is one good example of what such joint efforts can achieve.