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2016-17 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.

Public access to the courts is a cornerstone of the justice system.  This axiom inheres in the Constitution of the State of Florida (Article I, section 21), which declares, “The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury, and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.”  The judicial branch recognizes, however, that litigants seeking access to the courts may face obstacles—economic barriers, cultural or attitudinal hurdles, language or communication obstructions, or physical or electronic impediments, for instance.

The judiciary is actively committed to identifying and reducing these obstacles.  Through its endeavors to improve access to civil justice, to promote the use of innovative problem-solving courts and alternative dispute resolution processes, and to respond efficiently and effectively to the legal needs and best interests of Florida’s most vulnerable populations (e.g., children, elder adults, people with disabilities, people with limited English proficiency, and people in need of decision-making assistance), the branch aspires to ensure that everyone who enters the courts, whether literally or virtually, has meaningful access to justice and court services.

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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.  (This link goes to the commission website.)

Since its launch, the commission has developed several promising projects for connecting disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income Floridians with legal resources:

The concept of a statewide online gateway portal

Based on variables such as type of case, user’s location, user’s preference, and other factors, this web-based gateway portal would recommend the best existing civil legal resources for users (e.g., hotlines, law libraries, legal aid organizations, and court self-help centers).  The Florida Legal Access Gateway was piloted in Clay County between October 20, 2016, and June 30, 2017; an evaluation report is being prepared for submission to commission members for review and recommendation.

The use of emeritus attorneys

The commission recommended amendments to the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar to permit retired judges and retired and active law professors to serve as emeritus attorneys.  The proposed rule changes were reviewed and approved by the appropriate Florida Bar committees and were adopted by the supreme court in November 2017; in its opinion, the court explained that these amendments “are intended to increase the pool of lawyers authorized to provide pro bono legal services to the community under the supervision of a legal aid organization.”  (To read the supreme court opinion, follow this link.)

The Cy Pres proposal

From the French, cy pres comme possible, meaning as near as possible, cy pres is a doctrine that permits a court to award to a non-profit organization (e.g., a legal aid program) any allocated, unclaimed, or undeliverable funds from a class action settlement or judgment.  The supreme court referred this recommendation to The Florida Bar Civil Procedure Rules Committee to evaluate the most appropriate way to enact this proposal; the committee determined that statutory enactment would be the most appropriate course. 

The Do It Yourself (DIY) Florida project

Coordinated under the direction of the Judicial Management Council, the DIY Florida project comprises the development and implementation of interactive, web-based “interviews” to facilitate self-represented litigants’ access to the courts.  Users are guided through a series of questions that culminate in the production of court documents that are suitable for filing either through the statewide electronic filing portal or in person at the local clerk’s office.  Thus far, landlord/tenant (evictions) interviews have been completed and reviewed, and a 90-day testing phase is underway.  Also being developed are interviews for small claims cases and some simple dissolution of marriage matters.

For its 2016 – 18 term, the commission has been directed 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.”  The commission established three committees—the Executive Committee, the Services Options Committee, and the Resource Evaluation Committee—to carry out this work.  (For the administrative order governing the commission’s current term, follow this link.) 

In addition, last June, Chief Justice Labarga created the Council of Business Partners, a five-member body that will work closely with the Executive Committee to cultivate a collaborative relationship between the corporate community and the civil legal services community.  In the press release announcing the establishment of this council, he emphasized that “Employers, too, have a stake in [access to civil justice].  Employees who have challenges accessing justice have higher absenteeism and reduced productivity.  It is in all our interests to address access to justice.”  (This link goes to the press release.)

Fall Meeting of the Florida Access to Civil Justice Commission

Members of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice participating the December 15, 2017, public meeting.

Court Interpreting Services

Of the 20.6 million people who reside in Florida, approximately 3.9 million are foreign born.  Moreover, roughly 28.1 percent of Sunshine State dwellers speak a language other than English at home, with 11.7 percent of them speaking English “less than very well” (data taken from the 2015 American Community Survey, conducted by the US Census Bureau).  In developing the long-range plan, branch leaders, affirming that language hurdles can limit access to the courts and court services, emphasized the importance of “reduc[ing] communication and language barriers to facilitate participation in court proceedings” (goal 2.5 of the long-range plan). 

To minimize language barriers, the supreme court’s Court Interpreter Certification Board, currently chaired by Judge Kevin Abdoney, Tenth Circuit, continues its efforts to establish a pool of well-qualified court interpreters (court interpreters are trained to help people with limited English proficiency achieve equal footing with those who speak English),  The board also remains focused on providing 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 comprehensive court interpreting program, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives.

The Florida Rules for Certification and Regulation of Spoken Language Court Interpreters (referred to as the Court Interpreter Rules) establishes 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.  As of October 2017, Florida’s courts system has 330 certified interpreters, two language skilled interpreters, and 32 provisionally approved interpreters.  In addition, 123 individuals poised to become certified, language skilled, or provisionally approved court interpreters have registered with the Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA). 

Depending on the location of the court interpreter user, interpreting services are now available in the following languages: Arabic, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian, French, German, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Turkish, and Ukrainian.  As remote interpreting becomes more generally available in Florida’s courts, circuits will more readily be able to share their interpreter resources, enabling the branch to significantly enhance the availability of interpreter services while using state resources wisely.  (Information about shared remote interpreting in Florida courts can be found in the article below on Court Technology.)

Remote Court Interpreting, Orlando, Florida Remote Court Interpreting, Orlando

To become a court interpreter, applicants are required to satisfy a series of stringent requirements, the first of which is to participate in a two-day orientation program administered by OSCA or a training provider approved by the Certification Board (the orientation workshop is a prerequisite for sitting for the written and oral performance examinations). 

Conducted in English and open to all prospective 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 a chance to build and practice their interpreting skills. 

OSCA facilitates at least three orientation programs each year, held across the state, and they are always well-attended: during the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, the three workshops drew 339 participants.  During the same period, 148 candidates took the written exam, and 133 took the oral performance exam.  In the last few years, in advance of the orientation workshops, several circuits, including the Seventh, Ninth, and Nineteenth, have offered local recruitment sessions that aim to introduce people to the profession and encourage them to attend an orientation; in addition, the Fifth and Ninth Circuits have been working with the University of Central Florida’s Translation and Interpretation Certificate Program in an effort to encourage students to consider a career in court interpreting and to obtain formal training.

Every two years, Florida’s court interpreters are required to earn a minimum of 16 continuing interpreter education credits.  Since 2010, when that requirement was instituted, the Certification Board has approved more than 200 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.  Collectively, since 2011, they have offered 36 education programs—on a wide variety of topics.  Recently, the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Circuits have all treated court interpreters to some cost-free, home-grown training opportunities.  (To learn more about Florida’s court interpreting program, please follow this link.) 

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Court Access for People with Disabilities

Therapy dog Brody,with the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy Program, poses for a photo.At a recent meeting in Tallahassee, Florida’s trial court administrators learned about the benefits conferred by therapy animals in dependency and family court cases involving abuse or neglect. Here, therapy dog Brody, with the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy Program, patiently poses for a photo.

According to the most recent US census data, nearly one in five people in the country report having one or more disabilities, with more than half of them disclosing that the disability is severe.  Moreover, since the nation’s population is aging, and since the risk of having impairments grows with age, the number of people with disabilities is likely to increase in the years ahead.  This prognostication is of special significance in Florida, the state with the highest rate of residents who are 65 years old or more.  To better provide meaningful access to Florida’s courts, the judicial branch continues its efforts to ensure that court employees with disabilities are provided with reasonable accommodations when necessary and that court visitors with disabilities can effectively participate in court proceedings, programs, and services. 

Court Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act

The branch has had a longstanding commitment to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), established to ensure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities available to those without disabilities.  Enacted in 1990, the law protects people who have impairments that substantially limit major life activities—functions like breathing, seeing, hearing, speaking, understanding, learning, walking, caring for themselves, performing manual tasks, and working.  Since the ADA became law, each of Florida’s 20 circuits and five district courts has had at least one ADA coordinator to facilitate compliance with the ADA at the local level.  In addition to staying informed about new ADA regulations and their implications, the coordinators are knowledgeable about ADA issues associated with matters like facility accessibility, purchasing, contracts, technology, and electronic accessibility.  The branch also has a statewide ADA coordinator who is responsible for researching statutes and regulations, facilitating training, advising on policy matters, and providing technical assistance to judicial officers and court employees regarding court compliance with the ADA. (This link goes to additional information about branch efforts to ensure the accessibility of court services, programs, and activities.) 

Minimizing the Effects of Architectural Barriers

The branch continues its efforts to minimize the effects of physical barriers to Florida’s courts.  Galvanizing these efforts was a branch-wide court accessibility initiative, launched by then Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis in 2006, which sought to eliminate architectural hurdles that hinder access for people with disabilities.  With the ongoing strengthening of the economy and more resources available for addressing courthouses’ ADA-related concerns, local and state lawmakers are earmarking funding for making needed improvements to existing structures and for replacing dilapidated ones.  During fiscal year 2016 – 17, for instance, construction was completed on new courthouses in Broward and Washington counties, and state lawmakers provided funding for a new Fourth DCA courthouse; constructed in compliance with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, these buildings are more readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities than their predecessors.

Therapy Animals in the Courts

In 2017, ChiefJudge Elizabeth A. Metzger, Nineteenth Circuit visited the Seventeenth Circuit to learn about its animal therapy program. In 2017, Chief Judge Elizabeth A. Metzger, Nineteenth Circuit (second from right), visited the Seventeenth Circuit to learn about its animal therapy program. Here (l – r), she is pictured with Ms Jessie Clifford (Humane Society of the Treasure Coast); Ms Valerie Hoffman (Nineteenth Circuit); Ms Melinda Steinbacher with her therapy dog, Emma (Canine Assisted Therapy); Judge Jose Izquierdo, Seventeenth Circuit; and Chief Judge Jack Tuter, Seventeenth Circuit.

A service animal is defined under the ADA as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform particular tasks for an individual with a disability; the work or tasks the dog has been trained to perform are directly related to that person’s disability.  People with disabilities must generally be allowed to bring their service animals into all areas of the court facility where members of the public are normally allowed to go.  In addition to the requirements for service dogs, the ADA regulations have a separate provision about miniature horses that have been trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, and the courts must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable.     

Under the ADA, emotional support, comfort, and companion animals are not considered service animals.  Even so, in certain court situations, dogs other than service animals may be beneficial to people with disabilities, and a judge may consider allowing the use of such animals.

Under the applicable Florida law, a facility dog is defined as one that has been trained, evaluated, and certified according to industry standards and provides unobtrusive emotional support to children or adults in facility settings.  Similarly, a therapy animal is defined as one that has been trained, evaluated, and certified according to industry standards by an organization that certifies animals as appropriate to provide animal therapy.  The role of therapy animals in the courtroom has been recognized in Florida law since 2011, when legislation was passed authorizing the use of therapy animals in certain cases involving a sexual offense under certain circumstances.  Then in 2014, legislators expanded the law to include the use of therapy dogs in cases involving sexual abuse victims who were under 16 at the time the crime occurred and in cases involving anyone with intellectual disabilities.  Most recently, in the 2017 legislative session, they expanded the law further to statutorily authorize courthouse therapy dogs and, for the first time, facility dogs, to work with child victims in dependency and family court cases involving abuse or neglect; Florida law now formally authorizes the use of therapy animals in any proceeding that involves child abuse, abandonment, or neglect throughout the state.  After consideration of all relevant factors, the court has the authority to decide whether to “permit a victim or witness under the age of 18, a person who has an intellectual disability, or a sexual offense victim or witness to testify with the assistance of a therapy animal or a facility dog.” 

This express authorization in Florida law recognizes that children, people with intellectual disabilities, and people who are victims or witnesses in sexual offense cases have been traumatized and may be experiencing profound distress; these emotional and other barriers may hinder their access to justice.  Therapy animals or facility dogs may offer support and be a soothing presence to these populations, helping them provide statements or give testimony that might otherwise be difficult or impossible for them to offer.  Many Florida courts—among them, the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Twentieth circuits—have instituted animal therapy or facility dog programs.      

As the head of Florida’s courts system, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga has made improving court access a priority of his term (for instance, see article on Access to Civil Justice above, and see article on Guardianship Initiatives below). In keeping with this priority, he seeks to reduce the obstacles that prevent full inclusion of all Floridians in the state courts system.

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Guardianship Initiatives

 Judge Lauten addresses the WINGS Stakeholder Meeting

Judge Lauten addresses the WINGS Stakeholder Meeting.

Florida has been a retirement haven since the 1960s.  Thus it is no surprise that the nation’s third most populous state is also home to the highest rate of residents aged 65 years and older.  Currently, nearly 3.5 million Floridians, approximately 17 percent of the state’s inhabitants, are at least 65 years old.  Meanwhile, like the population of the US, the population of Florida is aging at an unprecedented rate, so that number is expected to rise: in 2030, more than 24 percent of the state’s denizens are likely to have already celebrated their sixty-fifth birthday (Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research). 

Because the risk of developing one or more disabilities grows with age, accompanying the burgeoning of the state’s older population is the increasing number of guardianship cases in Florida’s courts.  In fact, guardianship—a process in which a court appoints someone to exercise certain legal rights of a person who, because of some incapacity, has been judged unable to exercise those rights independently—is one of the few case types in the state that has shown growth over the last five years.  (Note: even though older Floridians constitute the majority of guardianship cases, they represent only one demographic for whom a guardian may be appointed.  Indeed, adults of any age may become incapacitated and require the appointment of a guardian on a temporary or permanent basis.)   

Perceiving the escalation in guardianship cases as a potential crisis situation, the judicial branch has become involved in two significant efforts to improve the guardianship process. 

First is the supreme court’s Guardianship Workgroup.  Established in October 2016 under the umbrella of the supreme court’s Judicial Management Council, this workgroup, chaired by Judge Olin Shinholser (ret.), Tenth Circuit, has been examining judicial procedures and best practices pertaining to guardianship to ensure that courts are best protecting the person, property, and rights of people who have been judged to be incapacitated and people who may have diminished capacity to function independently.  The workgroup is also developing strategies for improving accountability to better protect these vulnerable people.  (For more information about this workgroup, please see the article on the Judicial Management Council above.

WINGS logo

And second, the supreme court is spearheading a wide-reaching court-community partnership designed to improve practices in adult guardianship and to provide less restrictive decision-making options.  Stakeholders have long agreed that Florida law and guardianship processes must periodically be assessed and improved, and numerous efforts had been made to promote guardianship reform in the state.  However, each entity has worked largely independently of the others, targeting policy and practice issues from its own unique perspective and advancing solutions that address its own particular concerns.  Lacking in Florida was a concerted effort to address the issues systematically among all the stakeholders.  To ameliorate the ways that courts and guardians practice, and to enhance the lives of people who have, or may need, guardians, judicial branch leaders recognized the need for a broad-based, interdisciplinary, collaborative initiative.  With a one-year grant and technical assistance from the American Bar Association and the National Center for State Courts, the judicial branch established a Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) in Florida.  (This link goes to more information about Guardianship WINGS Court-Stakeholder Projects.)  

To initiate the process, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga called together a large, inclusive stakeholder group that is scheduled to meet four times during the grant period.  At the first summit, which took place in July 2017, more than 40 guardianship stakeholders from across the state gathered to share their particular perspectives and to identify key issues that need to be addressed (invited stakeholders included members of the judiciary, of legislative and executive branch agencies, and of related, private organizations, as well as guardians and self-advocates).  Stakeholders identified four areas on which they believe this initiative must focus: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation; Alternatives to Guardianship; Process Improvement and Standardization; and Education and Awareness.  At the second summit, in October, stakeholders laid the groundwork for developing a strategic plan for guardianship reform in Florida; they also discussed issues and efforts on which they can work collaboratively in the geographic region they represent. 

To inform the strategic planning process, WINGS has begun seeking feedback from people whose lives are touched, or may be touched, by guardianship: people who are under guardianship (either currently or formerly) or who need decision-making assistance, families of such people, guardians, private and government attorneys, state agencies, and judges and court personnel.  To get responses from the broadest spectrum possible, WINGS is taking a three-pronged approach: an online survey instrument, two public hearings (one in South Florida and one in Central Florida), and an online comment form.  The survey, the comment form, and additional information about the public hearings are posted on the Florida WINGS webpage.  The goal of this outreach endeavor is to gather information about, and identify areas of need and concern regarding, the current state of guardianship, the public perception of guardianship, and other ways of providing decision-making assistance in Florida. 

In addition, to collect, cull, and process the torrent of data, information, and ideas (both from Florida and across the nation) that the stakeholder group will elicit, and to shape the strategic plan that will guide the state’s guardianship reform efforts, the chief justice appointed a small steering committee (comprising a judge, a guardian, and representatives from a range of government agencies and non-profit organizations reflecting the diversity of issues associated with guardianship).  Once crystallized, the strategic plan will denote specific goals and strategies for improving processes in and increasing the effectiveness of Florida’s guardianship systems.

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Family Court

Some of the most complex, unsettling, and private family matters—separation and divorce, child support, termination of parental rights, juvenile delinquency, juvenile dependency, family violence, child neglect and abuse, substance abuse, mental illness—end up being adjudicated in the courts.  Since introducing its first family court initiative in 1991, the judicial branch has been working closely with its community, state, and federal partners to develop comprehensive, integrated approaches to handling these sensitive cases—with the goal of achieving the best possible outcomes for children and families. 

Family Court Initiatives

Photo of a recent meeting FCC Steering Committee

At a recent meeting of the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court, the committee chair, Judge Christine Greider, Collier County (on right), smiles for a photo with Justice Barbara Pariente and Justice Alan Lawson.

Many of the branch’s innovative family court programs and practices are spearheaded by the supreme court’s Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court (FCC), established in 1994.  Every two years, this steering committee is re-authorized by administrative order, which directs it to work on specific issues and projects.  Currently chaired by Judge Christine Greider, Twentieth Circuit, and comprising judges, quasi-judicial officers, and justice system partners, the FCC provides guidance and support to courts around the state, helping to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of family court operations.  (Please follow this link to read the administrative order governing the 2016 – 18 term of the FCC.)  Also lending support to 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 endeavors.  (Take this link for more information about OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement.)  Through implementing the innovations developed by the FCC and the OCI, the judicial branch works to resolve family court-related cases in a fair, timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner.

During the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, the FCC remained focused on monitoring and expanding its School-Justice Partnership initiative, designed to ensure that children involved in family court cases stay in school and are not subject to suspension, expulsion, or arrest at higher rates than their peers.  To achieve this goal, this initiative, launched in 2012, encourages courts around the state to work with local school boards to implement and maintain partnerships with school districts, state agencies, service providers, and law enforcement.  Currently Alachua, Broward, Citrus, Leon, Okaloosa, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Sarasota counties have school-justice partnerships in place; the FCC, in conjunction with the OCI and partnering agencies, continues to provide training and technical assistance to support local jurisdictions as they develop and implement this initiative.  Currently, FCC members are addressing four key issues affecting school-justice partnerships in Florida: expansion, truancy, Baker Act, and transitions.  (Take this link to the School-Justice Partnerships website.) 

In addition, the FCC continues providing training and technical assistance to help judicial circuits overcome some of the challenges they face in fully implementing the One Family/One Judge Model (under this model, efforts are made to identify all cases involving one family and bring them before one judge, unless impractical).  The FCC has also been studying the handling of criminal domestic violence cases in the judicial circuits with the goal of developing recommendations for model practices to help ensure the safety of the victims, eliminate conflicting orders between court divisions, and provide clear statewide standards. 

Judge Alice Blackwell, Ninth Circuit, and other members of the Steering Committee.

Judge Alice Blackwell, Ninth Circuit, and other members of the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court listen to a legislative update from the “Charge Three Subcommittee,” which is responsible for examining existing court rules, pertinent statutes, and legislative proposals that impact the model family court concept to determine whether changes are necessary to enhance the operation of family courts.

Finally, since the 2015 release of their Family Court Tool Kit on Trauma and Child Development, the FCC and the OCI, as part of their promotion action plan, recently finalized a three-hour, interactive training curriculum that can easily be delivered in multidisciplinary group settings.  The curriculum for Moving Toward a Trauma Responsive Family Court—which includes workshop materials, a script for the judge-facilitator, links to relevant videos, and information about planning the workshop—focuses on the impact of trauma and toxic stress on the developing brain, overall health, and well-being; trauma-responsive practices to implement; and self-care strategies.  Circuits have already begun to conduct this workshop for their court personnel and dependency court stakeholders.  Additionally, FCC members have been collaborating with judicial education judges and staff to infuse trauma-responsive court practices into the various judicial education colleges and programs throughout the state.  

Meanwhile, OCI staff have been overseeing the development of a new dependency problem-solving court model called a permanency docket, which focuses on “long stayers in care” (children who have been in out-of-home care for 18 months or longer).  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 panel and the OCI conceptualized the piloting of permanency dockets in Broward and Palm Beach counties  Each circuit appointed a multidisciplinary team to develop the pilot, and after identifying the sub-populations on which to focus and drafting core components based on other problem-solving court models, the teams introduced their permanency dockets in 2017.  The panel believes that taking a differentiated case management approach to this targeted dependency court population will reduce the amount of time it takes for a child to receive permanent placement.

Dependency Court Improvement Panel

Another big responsibility of the FCC 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.  Currently chaired by Judge Hope Bristol, Seventeenth Circuit, the panel focused on two major projects during the 2016 – 17 fiscal year: the Early Childhood Court initiative and the court-related findings of the recent, federal Child and Family Services Review.

Early Childhood Court (ECC) is a specialized problem-solving docket that utilizes differentiated case management to focus on the unique needs of children ages zero to three who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected; its goal is 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.  The dependency panel, with the support of the OCI and in coordination with Florida State University Center for Prevention & Early Intervention Policy, launched the ECC initiative in 2015; financed with a grant from Zero to Three: Quality Improvement Center for Research-Based Infant-Toddler Court Teams, the initiative provides the state’s ECCs with training, technical assistance, judicial coaching with national judicial experts, support for sustainability, and enhancement of data collection and data analysis.  At the heart of this initiative are the ECC Teams: comprising judges, case workers, attorneys, infant mental health clinicians, and parent and community organizations, these teams work to identify and expand evidence-based services for, and to prevent the further traumatization of, young children.  In just three years, the ECC initiative has grown from three sites to 19.  Recently, the ECC initiative garnered statewide attention when it was distinguished with a 2017 Prudential Productivity Award (these awards, conferred by Florida Taxwatch, recognize state government employees and work units for their development of cost-effective initiatives that increase productivity and promote innovation, thereby improving the delivery of state services and saving money for Florida’s taxpayers and businesses).   

During the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, the Dependency Court Improvement Panel oversaw the development of the Early Childhood Court Best Practice Standards and coordinated an ECC All-Sites meeting that drew 175 participants from across the state.  Looking ahead, the panel will focus on fidelity to the standards and long-term sustainability strategies so that the ECC’s transformative approach to addressing the needs of infants, toddlers, and families will become ingrained in the courts system and accessible to all who need it.      

In addition, the panel has been addressing the findings of the 2016 Child and Family Services Review, a federal audit conducted in all 50 states that assessed performance on a variety of outcomes and systemic factors related to the safety, permanency, and well-being of children in foster care.  This was Florida’s third such review (the first was in 2001; the second, in 2008).  As a result of this review, Florida’s Department of Children and Families is required to develop a program improvement plan to address each outcome and systemic factor determined not to be in substantial conformity.  The dependency panel has been partnering with the department on court-related improvement efforts that will lead to better outcomes for Florida’s children and families in dependency court.  –Much is at stake for Florida’s foster children, for federal funding for foster care is directly linked to compliance with federal guidelines; failure to complete the quality improvement plan and achieve negotiated levels of improvement could result in financial penalties amounting to a loss of millions of dollars.

Interpersonal Violence Resources

The family court jurisdiction also includes civil domestic violence (intimate partner violence injunctions, partner rape), repeat violence, dating violence, stalking, and sexual violence interpersonal vilolence rescources graphic(acquaintance and stranger rape).  The judicial branch develops education and training resources aimed at enhancing its response to issues related to these case types.

The OCI established the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence (FIIV) in 2014 to support statewide consistency and uniformity in the handling of domestic violence cases, and soon thereafter, the FIIV began offering regional training programs.  FIIV Phase I, launched in September 2014, focuses on domestic violence dynamics, the effects of domestic violence on children, elder abuse, and other civil protective injunctions (dating violence, sexual violence, repeat violence, and stalking).  Altogether, 11 Phase I trainings have been offered so far, all across the state, and more than 170 judges have participated; an additional Phase I training is scheduled for early 2018.  FIIV Phase II, which was first offered in December 2016, addresses rarer matters that may arise during domestic violence injunctions (e.g., firearms issues, mental health matters, violations and contempt, post judgment motions, judicial stress and vicarious trauma, supervised visitation, time-sharing, and alimony, child support, and economic relief for victims).  Phase II has been offered four times so far, reaching 74 judges, and a fifth training is scheduled for early in 2018.  Feedback about Phase II has been very enthusiastic: calling the training “comprehensive and useful,” and grateful for having “ample opportunities to share ideas and practices and to ask questions,” judges say that this “well-thought-out program” has helped them to “be more aware of reactions to trauma” and to “be more patient and more mindful” when handling cases involving domestic violence.  In addition to the Phase I and Phase II trainings, the FIIV is facilitating a training on Evidence and Electronic Stalking, which will be offered in spring 2018.

These face-to-face education programs are supplemented with a variety of web-based trainings, particularly webinars, videos, and training modules.  Each year, the OCI offers two webinars on domestic violence, for instance; during the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, webinar topics were Domestic Violence and the US Military and the Use of Facility Dogs in Judicial Proceedings.  In addition, a new training video was released: The Effects of Exposure to Domestic Violence on Babies and Children, produced by the Eleventh Circuit, teaches that, even if they never directly witness the actual violence, children and babies are affected and hurt if they live in a home in which a parent is being abused.  (This link goes to the FIIV library of webinars and videos.)  In addition, the OCI updated two virtual court online trainings—Domestic Violence Virtual Court Training and Domestic Violence Case Management Training—to make them accessible for mobile device users.  Now, the OCI is working on a training video about how to distinguish among the five different types of injunctions available to petitioners in Florida, scheduled for release in spring 2018. 

Finally, the OCI continues to expand its repertoire of interpersonal violence publications:  it produced the 2017 Sexual Violence Benchbook, updated its Domestic Violence Benchbook, and   produced two editions of the Sexual Violence Newsletter.  (All FIIV publications are available from this link.)  And it continues to build the FIIV webpage, aiming to make it the “go-to” place for judges and stakeholders seeking information about and resources on interpersonal violence.  (Take this link to access all FIIV resources.)

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Problem-Solving Courts and Initiatives

Problem-solving courts—a concept that includes court types like drug court and veterans court—have shown great promise in helping people who have underlying treatment and other needs that are not being addressed, or cannot adequately be addressed, in traditional dockets. They aim to “address the root causes of justice system involvement through specialized dockets, multidisciplinary teams, and a non-adversarial approach,” and their core elements include the use of evidence-based treatment services designed to identify and meet the unique needs of each participant; judicial authority and supervision; and graduated, individualized, and coordinated responses (both for incentives and sanctions) to promote both public safety and the participant’s success.  (This link goes to background information about problem-solving courts in Florida.

Ultimately, problem-solving courts have also been shown to have positive personal results for the participants—and for those whose lives they touch.  Of the more than 6,500 people admitted to drug court in 2016, for instance, nearly 4,000 graduated (note: because drug court is a 12- to 18-month program, not all admittees would have completed the program in 2016).  During that year, 220 children of family dependency drug court participants were reunited with their parents; in addition, pregnant women who were participating in a drug court program gave birth to 102 drug-free babies.  (Read 2016 data about drug court.) 

The first problem-solving court was established in 1989, when Judge Herbert Klein, Miami-Dade County, launched the nation’s, and the world’s, first drug court.  Since then, other kinds of problem-solving dockets have been implemented using the drug court model.  The most 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).  Currently, in addition to 19 early childhood courts, Florida has 95 drug courts (47 adult felony drug courts, 7 adult misdemeanor drug courts, 22 juvenile drug courts, 15 family dependency drug courts, and four DUI drug courts).  Florida also has 24 mental health courts and 30 veterans courts.  (View a side-by-side comparison of the core components of six different problem-solving courts.)   

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 two earlier supreme court committees).  Chaired by Judge Steven Leifman, Miami-Dade County, and supported by OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement, the 25-member task force includes judges and representatives from a wide range of justice system partners and community organizations.  The 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.  (Take this link to view the administrative order governing the task force’s 2016 – 18 term.)

The task force’s most momentous accomplishment during the 2016 – 17 fiscal year was its release of the Florida Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards, approved by the supreme court in June 2017.  Based largely on volumes I and II of the Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards published by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals—but modified in places to better suit the terminology and nuances common among adult drug courts in Florida—the standards are meant to clearly define the practices that Florida’s adult drug courts should implement in order to adhere to evidence-based principles that have been scientifically shown to produce better outcomes (because research is an ongoing process, as new studies are completed, new standards may be added).  The document addresses, among other measures, standards for treatment; drug and alcohol testing; the multidisciplinary team; the roles and responsibilities of the judge; monitoring and evaluation; and target population.  The supreme court is encouraging all adult drug courts to adopt the standards to conform to the national drug court model, thereby ensuring positive outcomes and cost savings.  (This link goes to the Florida Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards.)

Building on this milestone, the task force is now working to develop a certification program to give drug courts and other problem-solving courts a chance to demonstrate their adherence to the evidence-based best practice standards.  The certification program will be voluntary, and, thus far, the task force has been developing organizational strategies and principles to serve as a framework for implementing the standards and the certification process.      

Gathering together for a group photo during National Drug Court Month.

Gathering together for a group photo during National Drug Court Month in May 2017 are Judge Reginald Whitehead, Ninth Circuit (center, in light green shirt), who presides over drug court, along with members of the drug court staff.

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Alternative Dispute Resolution

Florida has long been hailed as a national leader in promoting and institutionalizing court-connected mediation; indeed, Florida’s commitment to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) dates back to the mid-1970s.  ADR had its beginnings in Dade County’s first citizen dispute settlement center; established in 1975, it was the fruit of grassroots, community-driven efforts.  Soon thereafter, the first county court mediation program was established in Broward County.  In 1988, as a consequence of a study conducted by a Legislative Study Commission on Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR was brought under the aegis of the Florida courts system.  (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.) 

The ADR process that Florida’s courts utilize most frequently is mediation: a way in which people who are having a dispute—with the help of a neutral and impartial guide called a mediator—can talk about their issues and design a solution to that dispute.  Litigants who work with a mediator get to be their own decision-makers—rather than having to defer to a final decision by the court.  In addition, litigants who utilize mediation and other ADR processes generally settle their cases more quickly and more cost-effectively than those who opt for judicial intervention; in short, mediation conserves the time and resources of the parties and of the courts.  By supporting branch efforts to process cases effectively, efficiently, and in a timely manner, ADR mechanisms play an important role in enhancing people’s access to justice.  (At this link, find answers to questions about what mediation is and how it works.)   

 

Justice Peggy A. Quince (center) was honored with the Florida Dispute Resolution Center’s 2017 Sharon Press Excellence in Alternative Dispute Resolution Award, presented annually to a person for “visionary leadership, professional integrity, and unwavering devotion to the field of alternative dispute resolution.” Here, Justice Quince is flanked by Ms Susan Marvin, chief of the Dispute Resolution Center (on right), and Ms Sharon Press, the center’s former chief and currently the director of the Dispute Resolution Institute at Hamline University.

Justice Peggy A. Quince (center) was honored with the Florida Dispute Resolution Center’s 2017 Sharon Press Excellence in Alternative Dispute Resolution Award, presented annually to a person for “visionary leadership, professional integrity, and unwavering devotion to the field of alternative dispute resolution.” Here, Justice Quince is flanked by Ms Susan Marvin, chief of the Dispute Resolution Center (on right), and Ms Sharon Press, the center’s former chief and currently the director of the Dispute Resolution Institute at Hamline University.

The statewide hub for ADR education, training, and research is the Florida Dispute Resolution Center (DRC), founded in 1986 as a joint effort of the supreme court and the Florida State University College of Law.  Housed in the supreme court building, the DRC also provides staff assistance to five supreme court mediation boards and committees, supports courts across the state in developing ADR programs, certifies mediators and mediation training programs in five areas (county, family, circuit, dependency, and appellate), and oversees the grievance procedure against mediators and parenting coordinators.  At the end of December 2017, more than 5,600 certified mediators were serving Florida’s citizens.  (This link goes to more information about mediation in Florida.)  

In addition, several times a year, DRC staff publishes a newsletter, The Neutral, which contains ADR news and updates, information about upcoming education programs, and news from the field.  The DRC also produces, and regularly updates, the ADR Resource Handbook containing select ADR statutes, court rules, and administrative orders; recently, the 2018 edition was released (Collaborative Law Process and Parenting Coordinator Discipline Operating Procedures are among the new resources in the latest edition). 

The DRC also spearheads the state’s paramount ADR education event—the annual, statewide conference for ADR practitioners.  Generally, approximately 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 session offers, on average, 14 choices).  The conference gives ADR professionals opportunities to earn their required continuing mediation education credits (in ethics, cultural/diversity awareness, interpersonal violence education, and family, appellate, and general mediation issues), as well as occasions to network with other practitioners from around the state.

The 2017 annual conference was the DRC’s twenty-fifth, and, over the years, these programs have continued to evolve, each having its own flavor and focus.  The 2016 conference, Dimensions of Diversity, addressed some of the many forms of diversity about which mediators must be informed, e.g., race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and culture.  And the 2017 program, Passion, Purpose, and Peacemaking, offered a four-hour pre-conference session on Exploring Mediator Ethics, enabling participants to earn all their ethics continuing mediator education credits in one place.  In addition, in place of regular workshop sessions, participants could choose to register for a seven-hour Appellate Mediator Certification track or a four-hour Arbitration Training track.  Justice Peggy Quince delivered the welcoming comments before both conferences, thanking attendees for supporting the judicial branch goal of making justice accessible to all: “The Florida court system is indebted to you ADR professionals for all that you have done over the years,” she stated; noting that Florida’s court system is “one of the busiest in the country,” she stressed that “We would not have survived without your dedicated service.”

In addition to offering this statewide education program each year, DRC staff regularly conduct free, four-day county mediation training programs that prepare participants to serve as county court mediators (these are primarily volunteers who mediate small claims cases).  DRC staff introduce 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 critiqued by DRC staff and other Florida Supreme Court certified mediators.  In 2016 – 17, staff offered five of these training programs (in Bradenton, Brevard, Escambia, Duval, and Volusia counties), in which 69 people participated.  

DRC staff also conduct Advanced Continuing Mediation Education trainings across the state; five were offered during fiscal year 2016 – 17 (in Panama City, Fort Lauderdale, Bunnell, Bradenton, and Fort Myers).  Designed for volunteer mediators and staff mediators, these free, six-hour trainings—which focus largely on mediator ethics but often address diversity and interpersonal violence topics as well—help mediators stay up-to-date on these weighty topics and on their ethics education requirements.  Altogether, 205 certified mediators participated in these trainings.

Some of the state’s youngest mediators also get to enjoy the DRC’s free training opportunities.  Each year, elementary school students studying conflict resolution skills at the Florida State University School (a K – 12 charter school in Leon County) mark 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, the fledgling mediators learn about the branches of government, the levels of court, and the five mediation certifications.  The visit also includes a mock mediation staged by DRC staff, after which the students perform several mediation-focused skits before a highly enthusiastic audience (the skits generally have a fairy tale basis; the Three Little Pigs continues to be a favorite). 

Each year, local school children who are studying conflict resolution skills in the Florida State University School, Second Circuit, commemorate Mediation Week with an educational visit to the supreme court. Several of the students participating in the 2017 program are clearly excited about taking notes on the “I Celebrated Mediation Day” notepads they received from the Dispute Resolution Center.

Each year, local school children who are studying conflict resolution skills in the Florida State University School, Second Circuit, commemorate Mediation Week with an educational visit to the supreme court. Several of the students participating in the 2017 program are clearly excited about taking notes on the “I Celebrated Mediation Day” notepads they received from the Dispute Resolution Center.

Also in the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, the supreme court addressed several consequential ADR issues.  In October 2016, 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.  (To read the supreme court opinion, follow this link.)   

Moreover, in an October 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, provide 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.  (Take this link to view the administrative order.)  The board had its first annual meeting and training in March 2017.

Finally, after completing a continuing mediator education documentation study, the Supreme Court Committee on ADR Rules and Policy rescinded the requirement that the reporting of all education activities be accompanied by backup documentation for the hours claimed.  Beginning with renewal applications due on February 1, 2017, the DRC returned to the practice of random audits in which a select group of renewal applicants, in advance of their renewal submission date, are notified that they need documentation.  This elimination of backup documentation is another reflection of the DRC’s goal of becoming as paper-free as possible—to streamline its processes, to save resources (both human and financial), and to be kind to the environment.

In addition to conducting county mediation trainings,Dispute Resolution Center staff regularly conduct continuing mediator education trainings across the state each year. These free, six-hour trainings, designed for volunteer mediators and staff mediators, focus largely on mediator ethics but often address diversity and interpersonal violence topics as well. Above are the trainers and participants of the 2017 program that was held at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

In addition to conducting county mediation trainings, Dispute Resolution Center staff regularly conduct continuing mediator education trainings across the state each year. These free, six-hour trainings, designed for volunteer mediators and staff mediators, focus largely on mediator ethics but often address diversity and interpersonal violence topics as well. Above are thetrainers and participants of the 2017 program that was held at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

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