A Georgia Public Broadcasting article suggests birth rates and divorce rates are down in this poor economy. But is this a good thing? We must remember that divorce, is a legal proceeding, not a determinative identification of which marriages are stable and which are not. Perhaps the economy is preventing some folks from filing legal papers or hiring lawyers, but does that really mean more people are staying together (and if so, happily?). I think not. From my perspective, many people who have struggled for years trying to maintain a marriage have had it. On top of years of marital or relationship troubles, the stress of a poor economy puts many couples over the top. The economy may be the proverbial “last straw”.
Couples who are in distress, especially those living in separate residences, often need the court’s assistance to decide how funds are shared between the parties and how time with the children is allotted. But in a poor economy, many cannot afford an attorney so they often ignore the legal process and engage in self help. This may work on an ad hoc basis, but troubles are inevitable. And if we do see a decrease in divorce, unfortunately, in my opinion, we will see a rise in other legal areas, such as child kidnapping, criminal claims of abandonment and even domestic violence as people take out their frustrations on each other (frustrations which a “good divorce” or “good divorce agreement” might have avoided).
So, the real issue is not whether divorce rates are down, but are marriages healthier? Are people now staying together and resolving their issues. Or are they simply not able to afford the safeties and resolution mechanisms divorce courts provide?
Last week in Baltimore, MD, the University of Baltimore Law School and the ABA Family Law Section co-hosted a very special event, The Families Matter Symposium. The “Families Matter” idea is a platform of three consecutive Chairs of the ABA Family Law Section with the goal of reducing the negative consequences of Family Law on families, and most importantly children. 65 experts from across the country convened, at their own cost, to explore and share ideas on how to achieve this goal. There were large working groups which broke into small working groups and then reported back to the whole group over the two full days of the Symposium. There were judges, psychologists, financial experts and lawyers, all working together. Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears was a featured speaker as was Maryland Supreme Court Chief Judge Bell.
While the program was a great start, it was only that, a start. There were great ideas that will take a lot of effort and time to implement. There was a consensus that it is impossible to create a flow chart for a family law case that would work perfectly. Every case is different. But there was agreement on many needed changes to the family law system. The concept of “triage”, immediately figuring out what a case needs and prioritizing situations based on different priorities (violence, kids needs, foreclosure?) was considered. “Early case intervention” was another popular (and similar) thought. Another discussion focused on law school preparation (and encouragement) of students to practice in this area.
So what are the next steps? One step is a comprehensive CLE Program which will be worked into the ABA Family Law Section’s next Spring CLE seminar. Beyond that we must figure out how to assimilate these and other great ideas into the general practice of family law. Judge and lawyer training and specialization? More frank discussions between the bench and bar (and mental health experts)? Family law is becoming more, not less complex. Relocation issues, gay marriage issues, international custody issues are all on the rise. Without consistently taking the time to study and try to improve our family law system, we do a disservice to our community.
Kudos to all those (and there are so, so many) that take the time and effort to work to better our system. Our superior court judges and their staffs, the many governmental agencies that are overburdened, and the legal and mental health practitioners who see the problems daily are all doing their part. The question is what else can we do. Certainly we all agree more needs to be done. So let’s keep exploring what can be done, and of course, lets do as much as we all can.
Please visit the blog maintained by the Center for Families, Children & the Courts: http://ub-cfcc.blogspot.com/