Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996
The Unified Family Court
The most significant proposal for structural changes in the juvenile court has been the unified family court. Under the unified family court, the juvenile court becomes a part of a larger administrative structure. Such a court has integrated jurisdiction over most or all legal problems that involve family-related issues. A unified family court typically brings together under one court administration all juvenile, domestic relations (including custody, spousal support, child support, and property division), paternity, emancipation, domestic violence, adoptions, guardianships, termination of parental rights, and child support enforcement. In some courts, jurisdiction extends to criminal and civil cases involving family members, such as intrafamily criminal cases and lawsuits between family members.2
Several states and cities have created unified family courts. Delaware, Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C., are the most noted examples, while several jurisdictions have recently developed or are considering similar structural changes.3
No two of these courts are the same. There are differences in the types of cases heard, in judicial selection and retention, and in court administration. Hawaii, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., are three of the largest such courts. In less populous jurisdictions, there are scores of de facto unified family courts. In these one-judge courts in rural America, the family has all of its legal business heard by the same judge. There are no coordination or communication problems among judges in these jurisdictions, and the otherwise inevitable conflicting orders are eliminated.