The changes enacted last year as to how the state’s family courts operate appear to be just the first steps in reforming a system which some critics have described as incestuous, secretive and having greatly distressed some families, both financially and emotionally.
While much of the impetus for the changes initially came from the legislature, with Reps. Minnie Gonzalez and Edwin Vargas of Hartford leading the fight for passage of the reform bill, the state judicial branch now also indicates its increased willingness to improve and streamline how it treats family matters and is introducing several bills this session.
Gonzalez, who has campaigned for the system’s reform for five years, is also not done. She also is sponsoring new bills this year that call for additional continued changes in the system with Vargas as her co-sponsor. “I have submitted nine bills this session,” she said, which demonstrates her commitment to overhauling the current system.
According to Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, program manager of communications for the judiciary, the reforms called for in Public Act 14-3, the bill passed during last year’s legislative session, have already been implemented by the family court system as it pertains to them. The bill required, among other things, that the judiciary establish a code of conduct and a sliding fee schedule for attorneys for minor children (AMC) and guardians ad litem (GAL). The latter are individuals, often attorneys, who the courts appoint to protect the interests of minor children in custody cases, while the former focus on legal issues.
Moreover, the judiciary has developed a brochure in accordance with the newly enacted act, Stearley-Hebert said, and has enhanced the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website relating to family matters.
As for the response to these changes, the judicial branch says it is too early to gauge their impact, but it is moving forward to consider other improvements. The branch recently hired an independent marketing research company to conduct “a survey of 1,000 parties to a family court case, randomly selected by the research company,” Stearley-Hebert said, adding, “We anticipate releasing the results soon, and the feedback will be important as the Branch determines where additional improvements should occur.”
In addition, Chief Justice Chase T. Roberts has publicly stated she is interested in seeking changes in the family courts to improve efficiency and reduce the costs to the parties involved in civil litigation. She also plans to meet with legislators to discuss statutory changes that would enable the judicial branch to develop “a simpler process for divorce for individuals who have no children, have limited assets and who agree on the terms of their dissolution.”
Meanwhile, the bills that will be introduced this session by Gonzalez include a restriction on how guardian ad litem can share information from a child’s therapist during court proceedings. Other bills call for videotaping most family court proceedings and for expeditious court rulings in child custody cases. In addition, Gonzalez wants an enforceable Parents Bill of Rights instituted.
Gonzalez has worked closely with advocate groups over the years to reform the rules for the choice, payment and conduct of guardians ad litem. Two years ago, she gained another staunch ally when Vargas, also from Hartford, began his first term in House.
Both legislators were members of the judiciary committee last year and served on the Task Force to study Legal Disputes involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children, which was charged with studying the family court issues.
Eventually, a bill was put together and passed unanimously in both chambers of the legislature.
Among the harshest criticisms of the existing system that the judiciary committee heard was that some parents were forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to guardians ad litem, and in some cases, had been wiped out financially by these court-appointed counsels.
One way this concern has been addressed with the implementation of this act was the establishment of a sliding scale for court appointed guardians ad litem (GAL) and attorneys for minor children when the parents combined gross income does not exceed $100,000. In cases where this total income is $39,062 or less, the state will pay for this service, otherwise, depending on income, the fees would range from $75 to $225 an hour.
Public Act 14-3 also allows the parties in a custody dispute to choose a guardian ad litem from a list of 15 presented by the court. Parents also can now file a motion to remove a guardian ad litem or attorney for the minor children.
In addition to implementing these changes Oct. 1, the judicial branch was required to establish a code of conduct for counsels for a minor child and guardians ad litem. These rules were established and subsequently put into effect.
One of these stipulations is that if a GAL is an attorney the role played is that of a guardian, and the information received is not subject to attorney-client confidentiality.
Among those who have endorsed the Code of Conduct is Allen Gary Palmer, who is chairman of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Family Law Section and the Custody Committee of the American Bar Association, Family Law Section. He also has served as a guardian ad litem and attorney for minor children.
“If enforced properly, these rules should begin to restore the public’s confidence that the focus go back to the children’s interest — where it should be,” he said in a recent article for the Connecticut Law Tribune.
For information regarding the new provisions for Family Courts, a brochure is viewable at http://www.jud.ct.gov/Publications/FM224.pdf and an FAQ section is available at http://www.jud.ct.gov/faq/family.htm. The code of conduct for guardians ad litem is at http://www.jud.ct.gov/family/GAL_code.pdf