CONTACT US
SEARCH

2015-16 Annual Report

Issue 2: Enhance Access to Justice and Court Services

Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016-2021
Florida’s courts are committed to equal access to justice for all.  However, litigation costs, communication barriers, lack of information, complexity, biases, and physical obstructions can create difficulties for those seeking to access the courts to obtain relief.  The judicial branch must strive to identify and remove real or perceived barriers to better provide meaningful access to the courts.

The judicial branch recognizes that a cornerstone of the justice system is public access to the courts.  As Article I, section 21 of the Constitution of the State of Florida states, “The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury, and justice shall be administered without sale, denial, or delay.”  At the same time, the branch acknowledges that, in seeking access to the courts, litigants may face obstacles: economic barriers, cultural and attitudinal impediments, language and communication obstructions, or physical or electronic hurdles. 

The judicial branch is actively committed to identifying and reducing these obstacles.  Through its endeavors to improve access to civil justice, to expand the pool of certified court interpreters, and to facilitate architectural and electronic access for people with disabilities, and through its efforts to promote the use of innovative and effective problem-solving courts and alternative dispute resolution processes, the judicial branch aspires to ensure that everyone who enters the courts, whether literally or virtually, has meaningful access to justice and court services.

Page Contents:


Access to Civil Justice

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga speaks to reporters before the February 2017 meeting of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga speaks to reporters before the February 2017 meeting of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.

In November 2014, citing the challenges faced by disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income Floridians when seeking meaningful and informed access to the civil justice system, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga signed an administrative order establishing the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.  (This link goes to the administrative order creating the commission.)  Bringing together the three branches of government, The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Foundation, civil legal aid providers, the business community, and other well-known stakeholders, the commission has embarked upon a coordinated effort to identify and remove economic and other barriers to civil justice. 

Since its inception, the commission has proposed the development of a statewide online triage gateway portal (the Florida Legal Access Gateway) that will recommend the best existing civil legal resources for users based on variables such as type of case, user’s location, user’s preference, and other factors (currently being piloted in Clay County); the use of retired judges and retired and active law professors to serve as emeritus attorneys; the designation to legal aid programs of any unallocated, unclaimed, or undeliverable funds left over from a class action settlement or judgement; and the development of web-based, interactive interviews to help self-represented litigants assemble pleadings and other documents suitable for filing.  For background about the commission and more information about these projects, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 11 - PDF version).

Initially, the commission was set to expire on June 30, 2016, but its final report recommended that an access to justice commission be reappointed on a continuing basis as a means to enhance its effectiveness in addressing the long-term and complex barriers that create difficulties for those Floridians seeking meaningful access to civil justice.  The supreme court concurred, and in October 2016, it established a standing commission on access to justice; the chief justice continues to serve as chair.  The administrative order re-establishing the commission directs it to consider “Florida’s legal assistance delivery system as a whole, including but not limited to staffed legal aid programs, resources and support for self-represented litigants, limited scope representation, pro bono services, innovative technology solutions, and other models and potential innovations.”  (This link goes to the administrative order governing the standing commission.) 

“Our judicial system is founded on the fundamental principle that justice should be accessible to all people, regardless of income or status. But for some people, even people with moderate incomes who are making a good life for themselves and their families, this truly grand principle ends up being nothing more than an empty theory. Why? Because they don’t have the money to hire an attorney. They make too much to qualify for legal aid—or they qualify for legal aid, but legal aid has hit its limit and can take no more clients.” The commission was created to “build a bridge to close the access gap.” ~Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

To carry out this work, the order established three committees within the commission.  The Executive Committee, which comprises the chairs of the commission committees, the business partner liaison, and the chief justice, is tasked with establishing a Council of Business Partners to cultivate a collaborative relationship between the corporate community and the civil legal services committee; overseeing the development of a long-range plan for the commission; and examining the proposals recommended by commission committees.  The Services Options Committee will evaluate the existing civil legal services delivery system to identify opportunities for enhancing coordination and employing business efficiencies; recommend proven components of a continuum of services that includes resources for self-represented litigants; and collaborate with other entities to identify barriers to access.  And the Resource Evaluation Committee is directed to inventory existing federal, state, and private funding opportunities that might support components of a continuum of services affording access to the Florida civil justice system; research the effects of the unmet civil justice needs on Florida’s business and economy; and review or develop funding plans for projects supported by the commission.  On June 30 of even-numbered years, the commission will submit reports on its progress to the supreme court.  (Take this link to the website of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.)

At a press meeting before the commission’s first meeting of 2017, Chief Justice Labarga once again threw light on the need for a standing commission on access to civil justice: “Our judicial system is founded on the fundamental principle that justice should be accessible to all people, regardless of income or status.  But for some people, even people with moderate incomes who are making a good life for themselves and their families, this truly grand principle ends up being nothing more than an empty theory.  Why?  Because they don’t have the money to hire an attorney.  They make too much to qualify for legal aid—or they qualify for legal aid, but legal aid has hit its limit and can take no more clients.”  The commission was created to “build a bridge to close the access gap.”  He then reminded listeners that “It will take ALL of us working together to make the truly grand principle of equal access to justice a concrete reality rather than an empty theory.”     


Court Interpreting Services

In April 2016, the Tenth Circuit hosted a day-long continuing court interpreter education program, in which 91 court interpreters from across the southern part of the state participated; here, the chair of the Court Interpreter Certification Board, Judge J. Kevin Abdoney, Tenth Circuit, welcomes attendees to the program. In April 2016, the Tenth Circuit hosted a day-long continuing court interpreter education program, in which 91 court interpreters from across the southern part of the state participated; here, the chair of the Court Interpreter Certification Board, Judge J. Kevin Abdoney, Tenth Circuit, welcomes attendees to the program.

The US Census Bureau reports that of the approximately 20.6 million people currently calling Florida home, roughly 20.2 percent are foreign born.  Moreover, in the region of 12 percent of Florida’s residents have limited English proficiency.  Recognizing that language hurdles can limit access to the courts and court services, the long-range plan emphasizes the need to “Reduce communication and language barriers to facilitate participation in court proceedings” (goal 5 of Long-Range Issue #2).  To minimize the effect of language hindrances, the supreme court’s Court Interpreter Certification Board, currently chaired by Judge Kevin Abdoney, Tenth Circuit, has continued its efforts to establish a pool of well-qualified court interpreters (whose role is to provide people with limited English proficiency on equal footing with those who speak English) and to provide judges and trial court administrators with the means to evaluate the credentials of spoken language interpreters seeking appointment.  To learn about the history of branch endeavors to develop a robust court interpreting program, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 15 - PDF version). 

The Court Interpreter Rules establish three official state-level designations for spoken language interpreters: a certified court interpreter has achieved the highest level of expertise; a language skilled interpreter has reached the same level of proficiency—but in a language for which no certification exam is available; and a provisionally approved interpreter has passed the oral performance exam (at a lesser qualifying prescribed level) and satisfied the other general prerequisites but is not yet certified in a spoken language for which a state-certifying exam is available.  Currently, Florida’s courts system has 321 certified interpreters, two language skilled interpreters, and 44 provisionally approved interpreters.  Depending on the location of the court interpreter user, qualified interpreting services are now available in the following languages: Arabic, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, French, German, Haitian Creole, Hungarian, Jamaican Patois, Mandarin, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian.  (Note: Arabic, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, German, Hungarian, Jamaican Patois, and Romanian are all new to the statewide roster of spoken language court interpreters.)  And as virtual remote interpreting technology becomes available in more state courts, resource-sharing will become more prevalent, which will enable the branch to significantly improve interpreter services while using state resources wisely.  (To learn about shared remote interpreting in Florida’s courts, please see the article below on Court Technology).

The job of a court interpreter is to place a non-English speaker on an equal footing with those who understand English. Here, that point is being made by Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner, a Spanish language court interpreter, to 58 prospective court interpreters participating in an intensive two-day orientation workshop in Tallahassee in October 2016. These orientation programs provide a comprehensive introduction to the courts as well as opportunities for participants to practice and improve their skills and discuss shared challenges with fellow interpreters. The job of a court interpreter is to place a non-English speaker on an equal footing with those who understand English. Here, that point is being made by Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner, a Spanish language court interpreter, to 58 prospective court interpreters participating in an intensive two-day orientation workshop in Tallahassee in October 2016. These orientation programs provide a comprehensive introduction to the courts as well as opportunities for participants to practice and improve their skills and discuss shared challenges with fellow interpreters.

To become a court interpreter, applicants are required to fulfill a series of rigorous requirements, the first of which is to participate in a two-day orientation program administered by OSCA or a training provider approved by the Court Interpreter Certification Board (the orientation workshop must be taken before one can sit for the written and oral performance examinations).  Conducted in English and open to all foreign language and sign language interpreters, these highly interactive workshops immerse attendees in a comprehensive introduction to the courts and the justice environment and give them an opportunity to build and practice their interpreting skills.  OSCA facilitates at least three orientation programs each year, in diverse locations in Florida, and they are always well-attended.  Between July 2015 and February 2017, nine workshops were offered (in Tampa, Tallahassee, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando), and 611 prospective court interpreters attended; in the same time period, 270 candidates took the written exam, and 237 took the oral performance exam.  To bolster attendance at the orientation programs, some circuits have taken an active role in encouraging people to become court interpreters: the Seventh, Ninth, and Nineteenth Circuits, for instance, have developed local recruitment sessions, aiming to build a pool of potential court interpreters in advance of the statewide orientation workshops.

Currently, Florida’s courts system has 321 certified interpreters, two language skilled interpreters, and 44 provisionally approved interpreters. Depending on the location of the court interpreter user, qualified interpreting services are now available in the following languages: Arabic, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, French, German, Haitian Creole, Hungarian, Jamaican Patois, Mandarin, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian. And as virtual remote interpreting technology becomes available in more state courts, resource-sharing will become more prevalent, which will enable the branch to significantly improve interpreter services while using state resources wisely.

Florida’s court interpreters are also required to earn a minimum of 16 continuing interpreter education credits every two years—a requirement since 2010.  So far, the Court Interpreter Certification Board has approved 149 court interpreter education programs.  While most of the programs have been offered by private entities, a number of circuits have begun to develop free, face-to-face training opportunities for their own interpreters and those in nearby circuits.  Thus far, nine circuits have received approval for locally-devised programs: the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, Thirteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Circuits.  All told, they have offered 29 education programs—on a wide variety of topics.  In 2015 – 16, six circuits—the Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Circuits—offered   continuing interpreter education programs, treating court interpreters to a veritable windfall of cost-free, home-grown training opportunities.  (To learn more about Florida’s court interpreting program, please follow this link.)


Court Access for People with Disabilities

Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was established to ensure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities that are available to those without disabilities.  The ADA protects individuals who have impairments that substantially limit major life activities (e.g., breathing, seeing, hearing, speaking, understanding, learning, walking, caring for themselves, performing manual tasks, working). 

At the October 2016 statewide education program for the courts’ ADA coordinators, Trial Court Administrator Nick Sudzina, Tenth Circuit, facilitated a panel presentation called What the ADA Means to Me; panelists are (l – r) Chris Littlewood, an instructional technology coordinator with the Center for Public Safety Innovation at St. Petersburg College; Barb Page, a senior advocate investigator with Disability Rights Florida; and Craig Spencer, an attorney for Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida.At the October 2016 statewide education program for the courts’ ADA coordinators, Trial Court Administrator Nick Sudzina, Tenth Circuit, facilitated a panel presentation called What the ADA Means to Me; panelists are (l – r) Chris Littlewood, an instructional technology coordinator with the Center for Public Safety Innovation at St. Petersburg College; Barb Page, a senior advocate investigator with Disability Rights Florida; and Craig Spencer, an attorney for Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida.

The most recent census data reveal that nearly one in five people in the US report having one or more disabilities.  And because the risk of having impairments grows with age, that number is likely to be even higher in in Florida, the state with the highest rate of residents 65 years or older.  To provide meaningful access to Florida’s courts for all people, the judicial branch continues its efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities can effectively participate in court proceedings, programs, and services.  To learn more about the branch’s longstanding commitment to compliance with the ADA, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs aid Initiatives (Page 17 - PDF version).

Since 1990, each of Florida’s 20 circuits and five DCAs has had at least one ADA coordinator to facilitate compliance with the ADA at the local level.  ADA coordinators have a wide range of responsibilities: in addition to being informed about new ADA regulations and their implications, they are expected to be conversant with ADA issues associated with facility accessibility, purchasing, contracts, technology, and electronic accessibility, for instance. 

The branch has also had a statewide ADA coordinator who provides technical assistance to judicial officers and court employees regarding court compliance with the ADA.  The statewide coordinator since 1994, Ms Debbie Howells also works to ensure that the local coordinators are familiar with the resources available to them, are informed about advances in auxiliary aids and services, have opportunities to share with one another solutions for challenging situations, and are apprised of promising educational events and programs. 

In addition, Ms Howells periodically coordinates a statewide education program for the local ADA coordinators.  At the most recent, held in October 2016 and funded by the Florida Court Education Council, more than 40 coordinators participated, representing most of the circuits and DCAs.  The curriculum of this day-and-a-half-long program included two sessions on Title I (the first, on Engaging with Judicial Officers and Court Employees to Successfully Determine Reasonable Accommodations, and the second, a roundtable on What Would You Do?); two sessions on Title II (the first, on Avoiding Common Mistakes, and the second, a roundtable on What Would You Do?); the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s New Enforcement Guidelines on Retaliation and Related Issues; What Court ADA Coordinators Should Know about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; and a presentation by a panel of professionals with disabilities who shared their experiences about What the ADA Means to Me.  Finally, in a particularly memorable session called Service Animals: Ensuring a Paws-itive Experience for Court Participants Who Rely on Assistance from Individually Trained Service Animals, founder Carol Christopherson and other representatives of Florida Service Dogs, Inc., provided a lively and meaningful demonstration of the amazing tasks that can be performed by a service animal on behalf of individuals with a variety of disabilities, while cleverly weaving in a wealth of information about state and federal laws and regulations that govern the use of service animals.

One of the especially memorable sessions at the statewide ADA coordinators conference was called Service Animals: Ensuring a Paws-itive Experience for Court Participants Who Rely on Assistance from Individually Trained Service Animals. Holding the dog is Florida Service Dogs founder Carol Christopherson, whose presentation introduced attendees to some of the remarkable tasks that service animals can perform for people with disabilities. One of the especially memorable sessions at the statewide ADA coordinators conference was called Service animals: Ensuring a Paws-itive Experience for Court Participants Who Rely on Assistance from Individually Trained service Animals. Holding the dog is Florida Service Dogs founder Carol Christopherson, whose presentation introduced attendees to some of the remarkable tasks that service animals can perform for people with disabilities.

Ms Howells also offered a training on Disability Awareness for 40 court employees at the 2017 Florida Court Personnel Institute; attendees learned practical techniques for interacting with people who have disabilities; were introduced to reasonable accommodations, policy modifications, and auxiliary aids and services; and were offered tips for locating resources for responding to ADA situations that arise in the court environment.  The following day, Ms Howells conducted a two-hour training at the Orange County Courthouse for Ninth Circuit managers and supervisors on the ADA: What Every Court Manager Should Know; the goal was to prepare attendees for court-related ADA situations with a focus on practical application rather than details of law.

The branch introduces many statewide efforts to identify and remove obstacles that people with disabilities might face in seeking access to the courts.  But access initiatives are also regularly spearheaded at the local level, and, each year, the annual report calls attention to one circuit’s or DCA’s efforts to improve courthouse accessibility.  For the 2015 – 16 FY, the spotlight is on the Tenth Circuit, which renovated two of its courtrooms to make them accessible.  For this project, the witness stands and jury boxes were lowered (and a wall was removed) to make them accessible to people who use wheelchairs, and the jurors’ restrooms were redesigned for accessibility.  In addition, each courtroom now has an accessible bench and clerk’s workspace: accessible paths (ramps) to the benches were installed; accessible desks were furnished; and space was cleared out to create unobstructed turning spaces for wheelchairs and scooters.  (For more information about efforts to ensure the accessibility of court services, programs, and activities, please take this link.)


Family Court

Some of life’s most complex, painful, and private family matters end up being adjudicated in the courts.  Since launching its first family court initiative in 1991, the judicial branch has been working with community, state, and federal partners to develop comprehensive, integrated approaches to handling these sensitive matters.  Many of the branch’s innovative family court programs, projects, and practices are pioneered by the supreme court’s Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court (FCC).  Since the committee’s first iteration, which was established in 1994, this body of judges, quasi-judicial officers, and justice system partners has provided guidance and support to courts around the state, helping to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of family court operations.  In the 2014 – 16 term, the FCC was chaired by Justice Barbara J. Pariente.  (Take this link to read the administrative order that shaped the direction of the FCC during this time period.)   Also lending assistance in advancing the branch’s family court goals is OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement (OCI); in addition to staffing the steering committee, the OCI develops and coordinates a wide range of family court trainings, publications, and other projects.  Through implementing the innovative practices and programs developed by the FCC and the OCI, the judicial branch works to resolve family-related disputes in a fair, timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner.  For more information about the history of family court initiatives, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 18 - PDF version).

Members of the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court pose for a group photo after their February 2017 meeting.Members of the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court pose for a group photo after their February 2017 meeting.

The One Family, One Judge Model

To evaluate the statewide progress in implementing a One Family, One Judge model, the FCC utilized two surveys to gather information from the circuits to better understand circuit practices, processes, and barriers for handling all related family cases with a single judge.  After reviewing the survey results, FCC members concluded that, with training and technical assistance, many of the challenges that the circuits are facing can be overcome (the two most significant barriers are the difficulty in identifying related family cases and geographical/logistical challenges).  In September 2015 and again in September 2016, the FCC coordinated a half-day, statewide family court workshop to share best practices and develop action plans with the goal of full implementation of the One Family, One Judge model; steering committee members then monitored each circuit’s action plans and participated in several site visits to assist with implementation issues.  The FCC is planning a full day workshop for September 2017.

School-Justice Partnerships

Developed by the FCC several years ago, the School-Justice Partnership Tool Kit is a how-to guide for implementing and maintaining partnerships among courts, school districts, state agencies, service providers, and law enforcement.  This online guide was developed in response to the FCC’s commitment to ensuring that children involved in family court cases stay in school and are not subject to suspension, expulsion, or arrests at higher rates than their peers.  During the 2015 – 16 FY, the steering committee encouraged courts to work with local school boards to implement the collaborative practices advanced in the tool kit; the FCC also expanded the scope of the tool kit to include children involved in additional family court case types, and it enhanced the website’s usability as a one-stop repository of technical assistance materials and data for active school-justice partnership sites. 

Justice Barbara J. Pariente welcomes attendees to the Florida School-Justice Partnerships kickoff event in November 2015.Justice Barbara J. Pariente welcomes attendees to the Florida School-Justice Partnerships kickoff event in November 2015.

The FCC also coordinated a kickoff event in November 2015 that was attended by eight county teams (four mentor sites and four pilot sites).  Each site brought at least ten stakeholders to the training, and, altogether, 119 people participated, including judges, magistrates, state attorneys, public defenders, juvenile justice staff, school officials, community-based care providers, and law enforcement.  The two-day event included sessions on the what, why, who, and how of school-justice partnerships; the importance of trauma-informed practice; strategies for maximizing federal funding; and four “what works for us” sessions, conducted by the lead judges of the school-justice partnership teams from Alachua, Broward, Palm Beach, and Pinellas counties.  Since the kickoff, with the support of the FCC and the OCI, each site has been working to develop action step items.  Currently, three more sites have expressed interest in pursuing school justice partnerships, and additional jurisdictions are being encouraged to join the effort.  (This link goes to the School Justice Partnership Tool Kit.)

Family Court Took Kit on Trauma and Child Development

The Family Court Tool Kit on Trauma and Child Development, released by the FCC in 2015, provides promising practices for moving toward a trauma-responsive family court that is informed about childhood development and the architecture of the developing brain.  It contains critical, front-line, science-based information that can aid in determining children’s needs based on developmental milestones and the impact of trauma.  The tool kit discusses the current problem, the solution, the goal, and 10 practical actions that judges, magistrates, and court staff can take to ensure a trauma-responsive court; it also features benchguides, red flags, and common traumatic stress reactions for each age group.  Since the release of the tool kit, the FCC has implemented a promotion action plan; the steering committee has been advertising it at various statewide conferences and judicial education events and developed a training curriculum that can easily be delivered in multidisciplinary group settings.  (This link goes to the Tool Kit on Trauma and Child Development.)

Dependency Court Improvement Panel

Another responsibility of the steering committee is to assist the branch’s statewide, multidisciplinary Dependency Court Improvement Panel, established in 2009 by then Chief Justice Peggy A. Quince to improve courtroom practices and decision-making in dependency cases.  The Dependency Panel, currently chaired by Judge Hope Bristol, Seventeenth Circuit, focused on two major projects during the 2015 – 16 FY: Early Childhood Courts and the development of permanency dockets.

Judge Hope T. Bristol, who serves in the dependency division of the Seventeenth Circuit, chairs the statewide Dependency Court Improvement Panel. When children come to the courthouse, she makes every effort to help them feel as comfortable as possible. Judge Hope T. Bristol, who serves in the dependency division of the Seventeenth Circuit, chairs the statewide Dependency Court Improvement Panel. When children come to the courthouse, she makes every effort to help them feel as comfortable as possible.

Dependency judges recognize that a child's future social-emotional health, school-readiness, and life-long well-being are dependent upon healthy attachment and early brain development from birth to age three.  They also understand that infants and toddlers in the child welfare system face an especially high risk for developmental delays, non-optimal attachment relationships, trauma, and toxic stress that can affect their adjustment and well-being for years to come—often, for a lifetime.  To address this issue, many courts across Florida have established an Early Childhood Court, which is a specialized problem-solving docket that focuses on cases involving children ages zero to three who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected.  In each of these dockets, members of an Early Childhood Court Team (comprising judges, case workers, attorneys, infant mental health clinicians, and parent and community organizations) work together to identify and expand evidence-based services for, and to prevent the further traumatization of, young children.  The goals of Early Childhood Court are to improve child safety and well-being; heal trauma and repair the parent-child relationship; expedite permanency; and stop the intergenerational cycle of abuse/neglect/violence.    

To advance these efforts, the Dependency Panel, with the support of the OCI, spearheaded the Early Childhood Court Initiative in 2015.  Financed with a grant from Zero to Three: Quality Improvement Center for Research-Based Infant-Toddler Court Teams, the Early Childhood Court Initiative provides the state’s Early Childhood Courts with training, technical assistance, judicial coaching with national judicial experts, support for sustainability, and enhancement of data collection and data analysis.  Currently, the Early Childhood Court Initiative is established in 18 sites across the state.

dependency logoIn addition, in 2016, Florida was one of four states selected to participate in a national project called Reimagining Dependency Courts.  With support from the National Center for State Courts and Casey Family Programs (a national foundation focused on safely reducing the need for foster care), the Dependency Panel and the OCI conceptualized the piloting of a permanency docket, a new dependency problem-solving court model.  The pilot program, which will be conducted in Broward County and Palm Beach County, was developed by multidisciplinary teams from each county and will focus on “long stayers in care” (children who have been in out-of-home care for 18 months or longer).  The teams have already identified the populations on which to focus and drafted core components based on other problem-solving court models; both jurisdictions will introduce their permanency dockets in 2017.

For the 2016 – 18 term, the FCC is governed by a new administrative order.  Now chaired by Judge Christine Greider, Twentieth Circuit, the FCC will continue monitoring and refining One Family, One Judge practices, expanding the number of school justice partnerships, and assisting the Dependency Court Improvement Panel.  In addition, the steering committee has been directed to consider the handling of criminal domestic violence cases in Florida’s judicial circuits and to develop recommendations for model practices to help ensure the safety of the victims, eliminate conflicting orders between court divisions, and provide clear statewide standards.  (This link goes to the new administrative order.) 

Interpersonal Violence Resources

The judicial branch also develops education and training resources aimed at enhancing its response to issues related to interpersonal violence, which includes domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence, repeat violence, and stalking. 

Since 2004, the OCI has been receiving STOP Violence Against Women Grants, which support branch efforts to improve the handling of domestic violence cases (intimate violence injunctions, partner rape).  When the STOP Grant formula recently expanded the reach of the domestic violence umbrella to include sexual violence, the OCI extended its scope as well, and in the 2015 – 16 FY, the office additionally began to develop resources to support judges and court personnel who address matters relating to adult criminal sexual violence cases (acquaintance and stranger rape). 

To prepare for this expanded focus, OCI staff conducted court observations and surveyed stakeholders statewide to elicit information that can be used to map the future of an OCI STOP Grant Sexual Violence Initiative (a specialized survey was designed for each kind of stakeholder: stakeholders included survivors, victim advocates, rape crisis center advocates, prosecutors, judges, court staff, clerks, bailiffs, law enforcement); altogether, 530 responses were received.  In addition, the OCI established a Sexual Violence Advisory Group that is now working to identify and prioritize the issues that the initiative should address (the OCI has long been guided by a Domestic Violence Advisory Group, established in 2013, to share the wisdom and experience of experts in different domestic violence capacities across the state; the Sexual Violence Advisory Group was conceived to function similarly).  Among the OCI’s first projects is a Sexual Violence Benchbook, which should be available by June 30, 2017.  The office also introduced a new, biannual newsletter called the Sexual Violence Review, which serves as an introduction to the sexual violence arena for those who are new to this case type.  In addition, the OCI offered two webinars devoted to current sexual violence issues: the first was on Sexual Assault Response Teams, and the second was a sexual violence legislative update.  Finally, the office is facilitating a judicial training event for spring 2017 for judges who are already hearing, or who soon will be hearing, sexual violence cases; three webinars, courtesy of the National Judicial Education Program, will provide attendees with a foundational level of sexual violence procedural training, and topics will include What I Wish I Had Known Before I Presided in an Adult Victim Sexual Assault Case; Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse; and Medical Forensic Sexual Assault Examinations.

In addition to this new focus on sexual violence, the OCI continues to develop education and training resources for those handling domestic violence cases.  To support statewide consistency and uniformity in the handling of domestic violence cases, it established the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence in 2014, which began offering a Regional Training Program soon thereafter.  Conducted by Judge Carroll Kelly, Miami-Dade, and Judge Peter Ramsberger, Sixth Circuit, this training has been held in nine cities across Florida so far; indeed, every area of the state has now hosted one.  In 2017, the institute began offering phase II of the training; while phase I worked to ensure that judges across the state are on the same page with regard to domestic violence injunctions, the second phase—which will be offered twice in 2017—considers rarer matters that occasionally arise during domestic violence injunctions (e.g., weapons issues, immigration issues).  All told, 171 judges have attended phase one of the training, at an average cost of just over $306 per participant (before these trainings were introduced, judges who sought judicial education on domestic violence had to attend national trainings, which cost, on average, $1,065 per participant).   

The OCI also continues to offer two webinars on domestic violence each year (in the 2015 – 16 FY, webinars focused on Seeing individuals Through a Trauma Lens and on Child Support Guidelines; in 2016 – 17, webinar topics were Domestic Violence and the US Military and Judicial Wellness for Florida Judges and Court Staff: Tools for Self-Care in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cases).  The OCI also facilitated a training on strangulation for domestic violence coordinators across the state.

In addition, the Office of Court Improvement continues to expand its repertoire of domestic violence-related publications.  Each year, it produces two issues of the Domestic Violence Review and is currently working on a brochure explaining the five different kinds of civil injunctions in Florida: in clarifying the differences among domestic violence, repeat violence, sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking injunctions, this brochure is designed to help petitioners who are representing themselves determine which forms they should file.  The OCI is also in the process of updating the Domestic Violence Benchbook, and it continues to build the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence website, aiming to make it the chief “go-to” place for judges and stakeholders seeking resources.  (Take this link to access the resources developed by the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence.) 


Problem-Solving Courts and Initiatives

Problem-solving courts are designed to help individuals who have underlying treatment and other needs that are not being addressed, or cannot adequately be addressed, in traditional dockets.  The first problem-solving court was established in 1989, when Miami-Dade launched the nation’s, and the world’s, first drug court.  Since then, other kinds of problem-solving court dockets have been implemented using a model similar to the drug court model.  The more prevalent problem-solving dockets in Florida are drug court, mental health court, veterans court, and early childhood court (the latter is discussed in the Family Court article above).

Judge Steven Leifman, Miami-Dade County, chairs the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts. Judge Steven Leifman, Miami-Dade County, chairs the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts.

Problem-solving courts tend to have certain features in common, such as the use of a team-based, non-adversarial approach; a continuum of individualized treatment services; judicial leadership and interaction; and responses to participant compliance (i.e., incentives and sanctions).  Currently, in addition to 18 early childhood courts, Florida has 98 drug courts (47 adult felony drug courts; 8 adult misdemeanor drug courts; 22 juvenile drug courts; 17 family dependency drug courts; and 4 DUI drug courts) as well as 27 mental health courts and 31 veterans courts.    

Although most problem-solving dockets are relatively new, studies have already shown that the adult drug court concept produces better treatment outcomes and better cost benefits than other criminal justice strategies for offenders who are at high risk and high need.  In addition, these specialized court dockets have been shown to have positive personal results for the participants—and for those whose lives they touch.  In 2015, for instance, more than 7,300 people were admitted to drug court, and more than 4,200 graduated from this 12- to 18-month program.  During the year, 113 parents who participated in drug court were reunited with their children, and 205 children of participants were reunited with their parents.  In addition, 112 drug-free babies were born to women who were participating in drug court.  (This link goes to more detailed 2015 data about drug court.) 

Many of Florida’s problem-solving court initiatives have evolved under the guidance of the supreme court’s Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts, established in 2010 (the task force represents a merger of the court’s Task force on Treatment-Based Drug Court and the Mental Health Subcommittee of the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court).  This task force is charged with addressing the needs and challenges of individuals with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders who become involved in the justice system.  Chaired by Judge Steven Leifman, Miami-Dade County, and supported by OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement, the task force includes judges and stakeholders, as well as representatives from the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Corrections, and the Agency for Health Care Administration.  For more background about Florida’s drug courts, veterans courts, and mental health courts and initiatives, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 21 - PDF version).  

Currently, in addition to 18 early childhood courts, Florida has 98 drug courts (47 adult felony drug courts; 8 adult misdemeanor drug courts; 22 juvenile drug courts; 17 family dependency drug courts; and 4 DUI drug courts) as well as 27 mental health courts and 31 veterans courts.

During its 2014 – 16 term, the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts made significant progress in addressing its three charges.  Directed to recommend a strategy for ensuring that drug courts are operating with fidelity to the ten key components (codified by the legislature in 2001), the task force established the Problem-Solving Court Fidelity Workgroup, which recommended that best practices be developed for all drug courts as well as for mental health and veterans courts.  Initially, the workgroup focused on best practice standards for adult drug courts, recommending that they be guided by training and education and that their implementation include a peer review process and a more structured certification process.  The task force approved the standards and submitted the workgroup’s proposals to the supreme court for review and approval. 

The task force was also enjoined to propose a strategy for participating in a multi-branch effort to update and enhance the Baker Act and the Marchman Act in light of current scientific studies (the Baker Act provides for voluntary or involuntary examination and treatment of people with mental illness; the Marchman Act provides for voluntary or involuntary examination and treatment of people with substance abuse impairment or co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders).  The task force created the Baker Act-Marchman Act Workgroup, which, after carefully reviewing prior supreme court committee recommendations to enhance the Baker Act, identified legislative changes that still need to be addressed.  It also proposed a blueprint for a multi-branch effort, which was approved by the task force and submitted to, and approved by, the supreme court.  Subsequently, the workgroup provided extensive input to legislative staff regarding needed improvements to the two acts, and, ultimately, a bill that included some of the workgroup’s recommendations was passed and signed into law during the 2016 legislative session.  The law creates a framework for a coordinated system of care to be provided for people with mental illness or substance use disorders and defines a “no wrong door policy” for accessing care.  Although many of the task force recommendations were not included in the bill, the legislature recognizes that reform will be a multi-year effort, and additional legislation has been proposed for the 2017 session.

In addition, the task force was charged with continuing to promote the recommendations of the Mental Health Subcommittee’s 2007 report, Transforming Florida’s Mental Health System, which includes a detailed plan for drawing down federal dollars to subsidize a comprehensive system of community-based care services designed to assist people with mental illnesses and keep them from entering the criminal justice system.  (To view Transforming Florida’s Mental Health System, please follow this link.)  At the request of the legislature, the task force provided guidance on a number of legislative initiatives related to this report.  Of particular note is the passage of a bill that authorizes the implementation of a Forensic Hospital Diversion Pilot Program in Duval, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties modeled after the Miami-Dade Forensic Alternative Center, a community-based forensic commitment program.  A collaborative effort between the Eleventh Judicial Circuit and the Department of Children and Families, the Miami-Dade Forensic Alternative Center diverts offenders who have mental illnesses or co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders from state forensic facilities to more effective and less costly community-based facilities that work to restore competency and successfully reintegrate their patients into the community.  (To learn more about Florida’s problem-solving courts, please follow this link.)  


Alternative Dispute Resolution

Initially animated by grassroots, community-driven efforts, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in Florida had its beginnings in Dade County’s first citizen dispute settlement center, established in 1975.  Thirteen years later, ADR was brought under the umbrella of the Florida courts system.  The ADR process that Florida’s courts most frequently utilize is mediation, which is a way for people who are having a dispute to talk about their issues and concerns and to make decisions about their dispute with the help of a neutral and impartial guide called a mediator.  Litigants who work with a mediator benefit from being able to take an active role in fashioning a solution to their disputes.  Moreover, litigants who utilize mediation and other ADR processes generally resolve their cases more quickly and more cost-effectively than those who opt for judicial intervention—thus ADR conserves both the parties’ and the courts’ time and resources.  By supporting branch efforts to process cases effectively, efficiently, and in a timely manner, ADR mechanisms play an important role in enhancing access to justice.  To learn more about the history of ADR in Florida’s courts, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 24 - PDF version).

The statewide hub for ADR education and research is the Florida Dispute Resolution Center (DRC), which was established in 1986 and is housed at the supreme.  The DRC also provides staff assistance to five supreme court mediation boards and committees, supports courts across the state in developing ADR programs, and certifies mediators and mediation training programs in five areas: county, family, circuit, dependency, and appellate.  In addition, four times a year, DRC staff publish a newsletter, The Neutral, which contains ADR news and updates, information about upcoming education programs, and news from the field.  (This link goes to the current issue of The Neutral.)   At the end of February 2017, nearly 5,700 mediators were serving Florida and its citizens.  (For more information about mediation in Florida, take this link.)

After conducting a Continuing Mediation Education Training at the Sixth Circuit, Kimberly Kosch, senior court operations consultant with OSCA’s Dispute Resolution Center, huddles with mediators for a group photo.After conducting a Continuing Mediation Education Training at the Sixth Circuit, Kimberly Kosch, senior court operations consultant with OSCA’s Dispute Resolution Center, huddles with mediators for a group photo.
 

The DRC’s preeminent education event is an annual, statewide conference for ADR practitioners.  Typically, about 1,000 conferees are drawn to these programs, where, over the course of two days, they attend three plenary sessions and five workshop sessions (each offering approximately 12 choices).  Here, they have an opportunity to earn their required continuing mediation education credits (in ethics, domestic violence, cultural diversity, family, appellate, and general mediation issues)—as well as occasions to network with other ADR professionals from across Florida.  If interested, they can also learn about emerging ADR processes such as parenting coordination, eldercare coordination, collaborative law, and non-binding arbitration.  

The theme of the 2015 program, the DRC’s twenty-third annual conference, was Treasuring the Past and the Spirit of Change; peering both forward and behind, this program looked back, contemplating the roots of ADR, and looked ahead, pondering changes that are likely in store for ADR in Florida.  The theme of the 2016 conference, Dimensions of Diversity, focused on some of the many forms of diversity of which mediators must be cognizant—among them, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and culture.  Justice Peggy Quince delivered the welcoming comments before both programs, thanking attendees for their support of the judicial branch goal to make justice accessible to all: she stressed that with more than three million cases filed in Florida’s state courts each year, and with under 1,000 state judges to handle all these cases, “We could not do what we have to do without the assistance of all of you in this room.”

In addition to offering this statewide education program annually, DRC staff conduct free, four-day county mediation training programs, which prepare participants to serve as county court mediators (these are primarily volunteers who mediate small claims cases).  DRC staff introduce the prospective mediators to the principles of conflict resolution, the mediation parties and participants, the components of a mediation, cultural and disability awareness, and ethics, among other topics.  On the last day, attendees participate in a role play simulation that is immediately and carefully critiqued by DRC staff and other Florida Supreme Court-certified mediators.  In the 2015 – 16 FY, DRC staff conducted two mediation training programs (in Leon and Marion counties), and they offered three additional trainings in late 2016 (in Manatee, Brevard, and Escambia counties); altogether, 74 people participated in these trainings.  The DRC will be offering two more trainings in spring 2017 (in Duval and Volusia counties). 

Susan Marvin, chief of the Dispute Resolution Center, and Kimberly Kosch, senior court operations consultant, join participants for a photo opportunity at the conclusion of a mediation training program in Ocala.Susan Marvin, chief of the Dispute Resolution Center, and Kimberly Kosch, senior court operations
consultant, join participants for a photo opportunity at the conclusion of a mediation training program
in Ocala.

DRC staff also conducted five Continuing Mediation Education trainings across the state in the 2015 – 16 FY (in Polk, Volusia, Lee, Alachua, and Columbia counties).  Designed for volunteer mediators and staff mediators, these free, six-hour trainings—which focus largely on mediator ethics but often address diversity and domestic violence topics as well—help mediators stay up-to-date with their education requirements.  Two CME trainings have already been offered in 2017 (in Bay and Broward counties), and three more are scheduled for later in the year (in Flagler, Sarasota, and Lee counties).  All told, 180 certified mediators participated in the seven trainings that were held between July 2015 and January 2017.

DRC staff also share their free trainings with some of the state’s youngest mediators.  Each year, elementary school students studying conflict resolution skills at the Florida State University School (a K-12 charter school in Leon County) commemorate Mediation Week with a visit to the supreme court, where they participate in a variety of education sessions facilitated by DRC staff.  In addition to being addressed by a justice (in October 2015, Justice R. Fred Lewis talked to them, and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga made an impromptu appearance as well), the budding mediators learn about the branches of government, the levels of court, and the five mediation certifications.  Their visit also includes a mock mediation staged by DRC staff, after which the children perform several mediation-focused skits before a highly appreciative audience (these skits typically have a fairy tale basis; the Three Little Pigs appears to be a favorite). 

Justice Peggy Quince, who delivered the welcoming comments before the annual statewide Dispute Resolution Center Conference, stressed that with more than three million cases filed in Florida’s state courts each year, and with under 1,000 state judges to handle all these cases, “We could not do what we have to do without the assistance of all of you in this room.”

Also in the 2015 – 16 FY, the supreme court addressed some weighty ADR issues.  In October 2016, for instance, it adopted proposed amendments to Part III, Mediation Certification Applications and Discipline, of the Florida Rules for Certified and Court-Appointed Mediators.  Part III applies to all proceedings before investigatory committees and adjudicatory panels of the Mediator Qualifications and Discipline Review Board involving applications for certification or discipline of certified and court-appointed mediators.  The amendments to the rules were designed to close existing gaps, memorialize and clarify current procedures, and address situations for which no direction previously existed.  (Take this link to the supreme court opinion.) 

County mediation training program attendees in Brevard County pose for a photo with Susan Marvin, chief of the Dispute Resolution Center, and Kimberly Kosch, senior court operations consultant.County mediation training program attendees in Brevard County pose for a photo with Susan Marvin, chief of the Dispute Resolution Center, and Kimberly Kosch, senior court operations consultant.

In addition, in a 2016 administrative order, the supreme court established the Parenting Coordinator Disciplinary Review Board to perform investigations and adjudications of grievances against parenting coordinators.  (In Florida, parenting coordination was established as a form of dispute resolution by statute in 2013, and in 2014, the supreme court adopted the Rules for Qualified and Court-Appointed Parenting Coordinators, which, among other things, provides that the DRC will implement the disciplinary process for those who violate these rules; the above administrative order was designed to help the DRC fulfill this directive.)  In addition to creating the disciplinary review board, the administrative order outlines the board’s policies and procedures and identifies its membership composition: three county and/or circuit judges assigned to family court cases, five parenting coordinators, and two attorneys; it also names the ten board members.  (This link goes to the administrative order.)