Family Court Task Force finalizes recommendations

Majority of court proceedings to stay as currently designated
April 16, 2014

A task force created last year to study whether Family Court civil proceedings would benefit from being open to the public will issue a report Tuesday, April 15 that says two case types should change from closed to open.

During the final task force meeting between the 13-member panel agreed on Tuesday, April 8, the current presumption of closed proceedings should be changed to a presumption of open in cases involving paternity, divorce, alimony, and property division cases.

The task force will also recommend the continued presumption of closed proceedings for cases involving adoption, custody, visitation, termination of parental rights, permanent guardianship, guardianship and child protection matters; and a continued presumption of open proceedings involving cases of child support, protection from abuse, and juvenile felonies and misdemeanors.

The report will recommend allowing judges discretion to close matters presumed open when there are safety concerns because of a number of reasons, but they essentially all have anything to do with where the court finds an overriding interest is served and no less restrictive means is available.

In addition to the formal recommendations, the task force suggested a number of steps the court system as a whole could take to improve the experience for litigants. The theme was centered around the systematic reeducation for all officers of the courts – judges, attorneys, Attorney General's Office, child advocates, and any other person who represents the court at any level.

Family Court Chief Judge Chandlee Kuhn said the problems are not with just the courts, but with the entire system. She said litigants should be made aware that a lot of the information they need can be found on the state's court system website.

“Folks have to take some responsibility,” the chief judge said.

Task force members Reps. Michael Ramone, R-Middle Run Valley, and John L. Mitchell, D-Elsmere, and Sens. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, and Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, were assigned the job of writing any legislation that will be introduced to the General Assembly.

Bonnie Henriksen-Corwin of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government had attended previous meetings when public comment was taken and was in the audience while the task force hashed out the final details.

Henriksen-Corwin said she was glad the task force has recommended a change that would open some Family Court proceedings to the public. She said she believes in transparency versus the way it's been, which, she said, was all about politics and power.

Henriksen-Corwin said the recommendation was just the beginning of the process and she is looking forward to much greater conversation in the future when the General Assembly addresses the issue.


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