Updated at 3:51 p.m.
A task force of family law attorneys in Washington released a new report yesterday calling for expanded legal services for the growing population of unrepresented litigants in domestic relations and paternity and child support cases.
The D.C. Bar Family Law Task Force spent more than three years studying operations in the domestic relations and paternity and child support branches of the District of Columbia Superior Court. Task force co-chair Margaret McKinney, a founding partner of Washington's Delaney McKinney, said expanding access to legal representation stood out as a need.
The task force's recommendations included allowing lawyers to enter limited appearances in cases and expanding self-help resources available at the courthouse. McKinney said the response from court officials had been positive.
"You're having the fate of your children decided. If you don't have representation and you don’t know what issues to raise, what's important for the judge to hear about, that's not always really obvious," she said. "Decisions get made about kids without all the facts being put in front of the judge.”
Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield said court officials were open to discussing almost all of the report's recommendations. He said the court would "very seriously" consider adopting a rule allowing limited-scope representation in domestic relations cases; the court already allows lawyers to enter temporary appearances in certain cases, including paternity and child support.
The only thing Satterfield said was likely off the table was a recommendation to consider a "right to counsel" policy guaranteeing legal representation in certain cases. He said that was a legislative policy issue, and not something the court could implement.
"We're pleased that we have a bar that continues to be interested in helping us improve our Family Court," he said.
The report's more than two dozen recommendations ranged from the more mundane—making it easier to find information about court rules on the court's website, for instance—to the substantive, such opening another self-help center inside the courthouse and hiring a case manager to oversee domestic relations cases.
Superior Court has seen an increase in domestic relations cases. From 2008 to 2012, the number of new divorce, custody, and other similar types of cases grew from 3,756 to 4,264.
The task force called on the court to adopt a new case management plan for domestic relations cases. That plan, according to the report, should include clear scheduling guidelines and time frames for written decisions and also offer litigants "some recourse" if the plan isn't followed and cases "languish for extended periods of time."
“One of the things I really like about practicing in D.C. is you actually get time with a judge," McKinney said. "But there's a tension there, because you end up spending a lot of judicial time on things that might not need a judge.”
Satterfield said court officials are working with the bar to develop a new case management plan. He added the court is also already taking other actions recommended by the task force, such as supporting D.C. Council funding for civil legal services groups and creating committees to develop standards for lawyers serving as guardians ad litem.
McKinney said that given the court's budget constraints, the task force understood the court couldn't adopt many of its ideas in the short-term. She said the court was already “very progressive” when it came to programs and assistance for pro se litigants. “We had to look hard to come up with some innovative things that we could say, ‘Hey, can you do this?’,” she said.
Fourteen family law attorneys from private practice, civil legal services groups and city government served on the task force. Co-chair Rita Bank of Ain & Bank said the group met with judges to "keep them in the loop" and had a good relationship with the court. "We look forward to working with them in the next phase, which is the implementation phase," she said.