The case for a Supreme Court Family Division
Over the years, I have inserted a line or two in several articles to advocate for the Supreme Court to establish a specialised Family Division in the same way that a Commercial Division was set up some years ago to improve the handling of commercial claims. Today, I wish to elaborate.
By way of background, let me explain that there are specialised family courts at the Parish Court level in the parishes of Kingston and St Andrew, St James and St Catherine (in Portmore). In all other parishes, family court cases are heard on special days in the regular parish courts. Matters to do with the custody, declaration of paternity, guardianship and maintenance of children, crimes committed by children, and domestic violence are heard in the Family Court, but not all matters are suitable to be heard in the parish courts.
At the Supreme Court level, there is a Family Division, that deals only with divorce matters. All other family-related cases, including custody, adoption, guardianship, division of matrimonial property, spousal support and declaration of paternity are filed in the regular civil division of the court and may be heard by any of the several judges who are assigned to that division.
Family law cases and their outcomes have significant impact on the society; and it is, therefore, critically important for them to be managed carefully and thoughtfully and for litigants to be afforded the level of compassion and support that help them to achieve results that are in the best interests of the children, and the family as a whole. It is these thoughts that support my call for a Supreme Court Family Division to come into being.
What do I envisage the structure of the Supreme Court Family Division to be?
It will handle divorces, child custody, juvenile delinquency, and trafficking, personal protection (change the name from domestic violence) applications, matrimonial property division claims, spousal and child maintenance and adoption matters. Perhaps even mental-health applications could be heard in these courts.
This division will assist with judicial and non-judicial processes.
Two or three judges will be assigned to the Family Division, along with an equal number of judicial clerks.
A registrar and two deputy registrars will assist in vetting divorce documents, assisting litigants in person and assigning cases to the judges.
A service desk will be established to assign litigants to counsellors, probation officers and mediators, as directed by the court.
There will be mandatory referral to mediation and counseling in all child custody cases.
There will be electronic filing of documents.
There is scope for litigants to represent themselves in some family matters, such as uncontested divorces that do not involve minor children; so the creation of a self help brochure could empower litigants to minimise the cost of court action.
We are grappling with high crime rates in Jamaica and, while I am no social scientist, I believe that our society can only improve if our courts are better equipped to help families to effectively resolve their disputes, help children recover from the ill effects of fractured family unions and restore a sense of hope that broken homes do not need to result in broken lives.