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2017-2018 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 keystone of the justice system.  This axiom inheres in the Constitution of the State of Florida (Article 1, section 21), which reads, “The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.”  The reality, however, is that litigants seeking access to the courts may still 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 thoughtfully and effectively to the legal needs and best interests of Florida’s most vulnerable populations (e.g., children, elder adults, people in need of decision-making assistance, and people with disabilities or with limited English proficiency), 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, then Chief Justice

Members of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice during the commission’s August 9, 2018, meeting in Pensacola (l - r): Ms Robin Hassler Thompson, Mr. Dominic C. “Donny” MacKenzie, Judge Alicia L. Latimore (Ninth Circuit), Judge Terence R. Perkins (Seventh Circuit), Justice Jorge Labarga, and Senior Judge Olin Shinholser (Tenth Circuit). (photo courtesy of Pensacola News Journal)

Members of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice during the commission’s August 9, 2018, meeting in Pensacola (l - r): Ms Robin Hassler Thompson, Mr. Dominic C. “Donny” MacKenzie, Judge Alicia L. Latimore (Ninth Circuit), Judge Terence R. Perkins (Seventh Circuit), Justice Jorge Labarga, and Senior Judge Olin Shinholser (Tenth Circuit). (photo courtesy of Pensacola News Journal)

Jorge Labarga signed an administrative order establishing the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.  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 address the unmet civil legal needs of these populations.  Among its accomplishments during the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, the commission, chaired by Justice Labarga, launched the Florida Courts Help App, established a Council of Business Partners, and adopted a long-range plan for 2018 – 2021.

Under the leadership of the commission, the Office of the State Courts Administrator developed the Florida Courts Help App, a direct, mobile-friendly pathway to Florida’s most requested court information and forms, including 186 supreme court-approved, fillable family law forms; links and contact information for self-help centers across the state; plain language instructions and descriptions of first steps and next actions; and contact information for a range of legal help from multiple online resources, for free and low-cost legal services, and for lawyer referral services.  The app was downloaded more than 6,300 times between its release at the commission’s December 2017 meeting and February 2019.  On a related note, Office of the State Courts Administrator staff are finalizing their work with law students enrolled in the Georgetown Iron Tech Lawyer Program, a Georgetown Law Center initiative, to build an app that will guide users through an interactive, web-based “interview” dynamic, culminating in the production of an editable petition for the type of civil injunction most appropriate to their situation: domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence, repeat violence, or stalking. 

Florida Courts Help Graphic

In addition, the commission created a Council of Business Partners to support its efforts to cultivate a collaborative relationship between the corporate community and the civil legal services community.  To assist in implementing its work, the council enlisted the support of the Young Lawyers Division of The Florida Bar.  The council and Young Lawyers Division are now working together to enhance the council’s communication toolkit (used by council members to engage the business community in access to civil justice initiatives and also available to businesses, which can use the toolkit to educate their employees about available legal resources); to develop promotional materials to inform businesses about how the lack of meaningful access to civil justice can adversely affect their employees’ personal lives and work performance; to examine the Florida Courts Help App to ensure its user-friendliness and to provide guidance for future enhancements; and to develop video content to assist self-represented litigants in navigating the court system and advancing their cases.

Access Commission Logo

Furthermore, the commission adopted a long-range plan for 2018-2021, which articulates a course of action for guiding its future efforts to address access to civil justice challenges.  The plan is organized around four broad access issues and includes specific goals to improve and expand access.  It was developed through a deliberately constructed process designed to gather input from all members of the commission and the Council of Business Partners, and it serves as a vehicle for advancing meaningful access initiatives going forward.  The four access issues addressed by the plan are as follows: Improve Triage and Referral; Emphasize Process Simplification; Provide Limited Legal Assistance; and Promote Plain Language.  (Take this link to visit the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice website.)

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Court Interpreting Services

Due to its geographic location, Florida has more residents with limited-English-proficiency than most other states, and this population is increasing.  Of its more than 20 million residents, approximately 4.1 million are foreign born.  Moreover, roughly 28.7 percent of Florida’s population age five and over speak a language other than English at home—with 41.3 percent estimated to “speak English less than very well” (US Census Bureau, 2013 – 2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates).  In developing the long-range plan, branch leaders—mindful that the ability to communicate effectively in court is a basic right of all people in the US and that language hurdles can limit access to the courts and court services—emphasized the importance of “reducing[ing] communication and language barriers to facilitate participation in court proceedings” (goal 2.5 of the long-range plan).  

Tenth Circuit Judges Kevin Abdoney, Angela Cowden, and Jalal Harb (l – r), all presenters at the circuit’s 2018 Court Interpreters Workshop, confer during a break; approximately 60 court interpreters from the region participated in this day-long program on Capital Murder Cases from Arrest Through Trial: What Court Interpreters Need to Know. Judge Abdoney also chairs the supreme court’s Court Interpreter Certification Board.

Tenth Circuit Judges Kevin Abdoney, Angela Cowden, and Jalal Harb (l – r), all presenters at the circuit’s 2018 Court Interpreters Workshop, confer during a break; approximately 60 court interpreters from the region participated in this day-long program on Capital Murder Cases from Arrest Through Trial: What Court Interpreters Need to Know. Judge Abdoney also chairs the supreme court’s Court Interpreter Certification Board.

Seeking to ensure that all people, regardless of their ability to communicate effectively in English, have meaningful access to the courts, the branch continues working to improve the overall quality of court interpreting services available.  Each year, thousands of court cases in Florida require spoken language interpreters or assistance for individuals with hearing loss.  Among its fundamental goals, court interpreting aspires to place those who use interpreting services on equal footing, within the court, with those who do not require interpreting services; to comply with Florida law and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and other federal laws; and to protect due process rights and fundamental interests. 

To oversee this endeavor, the supreme court established the Court Interpreter Certification Board in 2006.  Currently chaired by Judge Kevin Abdoney, Tenth Circuit, the board is responsible for certifying, regulating, and disciplining court interpreters as well as for suspending and revoking certification (as set forth in the Florida Rules for Certification and Regulation of Spoken Language Court Interpreters).  Among its accomplishments in the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, the board formulated a strategic plan to set and manage language access priorities; initiated the process for developing training standards for providing court interpreter orientation workshops; and worked with the Florida Court Education Council to revise the Florida Benchguide on Court Interpreting

With input from Court Interpreter Certification and Regulation Program staff, the Court Interpreter Certification Board reviewed current trial court compliance with a 2012 administrative order adopting operational standards and best practices for providing court interpreter services (see AOSC11-45 Corrected); examined other court-approved language access initiatives; and gauged the trial courts’ future language access needs.  Based on these analyses, the board drafted a strategic plan that enumerates the existing programs, procedures, and resources that must be monitored and updated on an ongoing basis.  The plan also identifies outstanding tasks, which fall under six general topic areas: language access policies and standards; language service providers; translation and signage; training; outreach to external stakeholders; and shared remote interpreting (to read about the implementation of Virtual Remote Interpreting, please see article on Performance and Accountability above).  In addition, the plan offers an implementation timeline and assigns responsibilities for completion.  Once finalized, the plan will be submitted to the supreme court for approval. 

In addition, the Court Interpreter Certification Board, in order to facilitate the provision of additional orientation workshops for prospective court interpreters, will soon begin developing training standards and procedures for training providers seeking to offer this education prerequisite.  As per the Court Interpreter Rules, all prospective spoken language court interpreters must satisfy a series of stringent requirements, the first of which is to participate in a two-day orientation program.  Currently, because these orientations must be administered by the Office of the State Courts Administrator or by a training provider approved by the board, the number of programs offered each year is limited.  For the 2018 – 19 fiscal year, for instance, only five orientations were scheduled, and in only three cities: two in Fort Lauderdale, one in Tampa, and two in Orlando.  With the formulation of training standards and procedures, other board-approved training providers will be positioned to conduct orientation workshops, thereby expanding both the frequency and the number of jurisdictions in which the trainings are held in Florida—and, ultimately, increasing the pool of qualified interpreters statewide.       

Finally, the board also worked on enhancing its educational resources for judges and court personnel.  Most notably, in conjunction with the Publications Committee of the Florida Court Education Council, the board substantially revised the Florida Benchguide on Court Interpreting: a useful guide for judicial officers and their staff who handle Florida cases involving spoken or sign language interpreters.  The benchguide—currently in its third edition—includes chapters on law and policy governing interpreters for people with limited-English-proficiency and for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; determining the need for, waiving the right to, and appointing a spoken language court interpreter; the roles, duties, and ethics of court interpreters; conducting proceedings with, and best practices for working with, court interpreters; and interpreters for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Among the revisions are updates regarding the rules regulating the appointment of and the retention of spoken language court interpreters; significant changes to the section on Appointing a Spoken Language Interpreter; and additional detail about what is meant by a “fundamental interest at stake” and what constitutes a “diligent search” for a qualified interpreter.  In addition, the Bench Card on Court Interpreting was completely revamped and made a stand-alone document that judges can print and easily access. 

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Guardianship

Florida has been a magnet for retirees since the 1960s.  Thus it should come as no surprise that the nation’s third most populous state is also home to the highest rate of residents age 65 and older.  Currently, nearly four million Floridians, approximately 19.4 percent of the state’s inhabitants, are at least 65 years old (US Census Bureau, 2013 – 2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates).  Meanwhile, like the population of the US, the population of Florida is aging at an unprecedented rate, so that number is expected to rise: by 2030, more than 24 percent of the state’s residents are likely to have already marked their sixty-fifth birthday (Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research).    

Chief Judge Frederick Lauten, Ninth Circuit, who chairs the Florida Wings stakeholder group, welcomes stakeholders to the fourth WINGS summit, which was held in the Florida Supreme Court.

Chief Judge Frederick Lauten, Ninth Circuit, who chairs the Florida Wings stakeholder group, welcomes stakeholders to the fourth WINGS summit, which was held in the Florida Supreme Court.

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.  While older Floridians constitute the majority of guardianship cases, it is important to note that this is not the only demographic for whom a guardian may be appointed: the court may appoint a guardian to manage the personal and/or financial affairs of any person who is legally unable to manage his or her own affairs, which could include a minor or an adult with a developmental disability, a mental health disability, or an age-related disability.  

Guardianship is one of the few case types in the state that has shown growth over the last five years: between fiscal years 2013 – 14 and 2017 – 18, guardianship filings have increased 12.17 percent.  Perceiving this rise in guardianship cases as a potential trend, the judicial branch has been involved in two significant efforts to improve guardianship processes. 

The first is the supreme court’s Guardianship Workgroup, which was established under the Judicial Management Council in 2016 to try to address this seeming trend and its ramifications for the courts.  The workgroup was tasked with examining judicial procedures and best practices pertaining to guardianships to ensure that courts are best protecting the well-being of people adjudicated to be incapacitated and people alleged to have diminished capacity.  In its final report, submitted to the supreme court in 2018, the workgroup made 25 recommendations for consideration and referral, where appropriate, to the responsible stakeholders.  (For more about this workgroup, please see the article on the Judicial Management Council above.)      

Wings logo

And, second, with a grant and technical assistance from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging and the National Center for State Courts, the Office of the State Courts Administrator facilitated a Working Interdisciplinary Network of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) initiative.  Chaired by Judge Frederick J. Lauten, Ninth Judicial Circuit, Florida WINGS is a group of stakeholders dedicated to creating solutions through collaborative partnerships by identifying, assessing, and improving guardianship practices and other decision-making alternatives to enhance the quality of care and lives of vulnerable adults.  The vision of Florida WINGS is to serve the best interests of those needing decision-making assistance, thereby promoting their well-being, dignity, self-determination, and independence.

Divided into three committees, WINGS members are currently working on the top three priority areas, which are to determine which circuits do not have a sufficient number of physicians participating on their examining committees and develop a recruitment plan for those circuits to use; design a toolkit containing comprehensive information about decision-making options, for distribution to the public; and provide law enforcement officers and first responders with one or more tools to assist them in identifying and reporting abuse, neglect, or exploitation.  The committees are completing their work now and will soon submit their work products to the WINGS steering committee.  As the work related to each priority area is completed, subsequent priority areas will be addressed. 

Many state agencies and private organizations target policy and practice issues related to guardianship from their own perspectives and work to advance solutions for specific issues.  But what makes the WINGS effort exceptional is its endeavor to collaboratively map a comprehensive strategy for improved processes and increased effectiveness.  Reflecting on the advantages and aims of the WINGS initiative, former Florida State Courts Administrator PK Jameson said, “Florida will be positioned to embrace systems change within the guardianship process, avoid unnecessary guardianships, and better identify ways to address financial exploitation.”  Take this link for more information about Florida WINGS.

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Family Court

Separation and divorce, child support, termination of parental rights, juvenile delinquency, juvenile dependency, family violence, child neglect and abuse, substance abuse, mental illness…some of the most complex, disconcerting, and private family matters often end up being adjudicated in the courts.  Seeking to achieve the best possible outcomes for children and families, the judicial branch, since introducing the first family court initiative in 1991, has been working closely with community, state, and federal partners to develop comprehensive, integrated approaches to handling these sensitive cases.

Many of the branch’s innovative family court programs and practices are introduced by the supreme court’s Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court (first established in 1994 as the Family Court Steering Committee); this committee provides direction, guidance, and support to courts around the state, helping to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of family court operations.  Also offering guidance to the courts is the Dependency Court Improvement Panel; established in 2009 by then Chief Justice Peggy Quince, this panel addresses ways to improve practices and decision-making specifically in dependency cases.  Another important family-court-related resource is the Office of Court Improvement, a unit of the Office of the State Courts Administrator; in addition to staffing the steering committee and the panel, this unit develops a wide range of family court trainings, publications, and other materials for family court judges, court personnel, and court users. Through implementing the innovations developed by these three resources, the judicial branch works to resolve family court cases in a fair, timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner.  Below, read about some of their recent accomplishments.  

Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court

Every two years, the supreme court re-authorizes the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court (FCC) by administrative

The Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court distinguished Justice Barbara J. Pariente (seated) with the inaugural Justice for Children and Families Award, which “honor[s] a person or entity advancing the spirit and ideals of a model family court, while accomplishing the judicial branch mission of protecting rights and liberties, upholding and interpreting the law, and providing for the peaceful resolution of disputes.” Standing behind Justice Pariente is Judge Christine Greider, Twentieth Circuit, chair of the steering committee.

The Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court distinguished Justice Barbara J. Pariente (seated) with the inaugural Justice for Children and Families Award. Standing behind Justice Pariente is Judge Christine Greider, Twentieth Circuit, chair of the steering committee.

order, directing it to work on specific issues and projects (take this link to the administrative order governing the 2016 – 18 term of the FCC).  The FCC is currently chaired by Judge Christine Greider, Twentieth Circuit, and comprises judges, court administrators, and justice system partners.

During the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, the FCC addressed the following: it surveyed the handling of criminal domestic violence cases in the circuits and developed recommendations for model practices to help ensure the safety of the victims, eliminate conflicting orders between divisions, and provide clear, statewide standards; it continued monitoring and working with each circuit on refining one family/one judge practices and initiated a process for defining a set of desired outcomes to delineate a successful one family/one judge model; it examined court rules, pertinent statutes, and legislative proposals that affect the model family court concept and determined where changes are necessary to enhance the operation of family courts; it continued monitoring the school-justice partnership efforts in existing sites and worked with the Fifth Circuit to launch a partnership in Citrus County; and it assisted the Dependency Court Improvement Panel with the creation of the Early Childhood Court Best Practice Standards and with the importing of trauma-responsive court practices to all family court case types (read more about the Dependency Court Improvement Panel below).

Dependency Court Improvement Panel

Currently chaired by Judge Hope Bristol, Seventeenth Circuit, the statewide, multidisciplinary Dependency Court Improvement Panel continued enhancing its Early Childhood Court Initiative and also launched its Opioid Crisis – Court Response Initiative.  

Judge Hope Bristol, Seventeenth Circuit, chairs the Dependency Court Improvement Panel.

Judge Hope Bristol, Seventeenth Circuit, chairs the Dependency Court Improvement Panel.

Early Childhood Court encompasses child welfare cases involving children under the age of three.  Like other problem-solving courts, Early Childhood Court addresses the root causes of justice system involvement through the use of specialized dockets, multidisciplinary teams, a non-adversarial approach, and differentiated case management principles (i.e., judicial system resources are allotted based on the complexity and needs of individual cases, ensuring the most efficient use of court resources as well as the most effective solutions that promote long-term stability for litigants).  Offering evidence-based treatment, judicial supervision, and accountability, Early Childhood Court seeks to improve child safety and well-being, heal trauma and repair the parent/child relationship, promote timely permanency, and stop the intergenerational cycle of maltreatment.

The seed for Early Childhood Court was planted in the 1990s, when Judge Cindy Lederman in Miami pioneered the concept of collaborating with a child psychologist and an early childhood expert on behalf of young children in the dependency court system.  Building on this concept, the national organization ZERO TO THREE developed the “Safe Babies Court Team approach,” a method that effectively alters the trajectory of maltreated children and their families.  Jurisdictions throughout Florida have been using this approach since 2015, referring to it as Early Childhood Court.  The outcomes in Florida—like those across the nation—have been impressive: compared to jurisdictions with traditional dependency courts, jurisdictions with Early Childhood Court dockets have demonstrated more timely permanency outcomes and a reduction of re-abuse.  Over the past five years, Florida’s Early Childhood Courts have grown from three sites to 22 sites, and the implementation of new sites is ongoing. 

Early Childhood Court Logo

The second major project on which the dependency panel has been working, the Opioid Crisis – Court Response Initiative, has links to the Early Childhood Court Initiative.  As former Justice Barbara J. Pariente recently observed, “Every day, misuse and addiction to opioids causes deaths and destroys families…. In family court, the impact of opioid addiction is most visible in the dependency docket, in many cases overwhelming our foster care system.  We see babies born addicted to opioids and families torn apart by addiction.  Our Early Childhood Courts could not be more important than now” (this link goes to former Justice Pariente’s article). 

An estimated 2.5 million Americans are addicted to opioids.  From 2016–2017, several states, including Florida, saw spikes in overdose death rates of more than 30 percent, most likely due to the increasing presence of fentanyl (a deadly synthetic drug) in their illicit drug supply; in Florida alone, overdoses, mostly of heroin and fentanyl, claimed more than 900 lives in 2015 and nearly 6,000 in 2016.  Given the effects of opioids on families and family court, in late 2017, the dependency panel was galvanized to turn its attention to the opioid crisis.  With staff from the Office of Court Improvement (OCI), Judge Bristol collaborated with national consultants and Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, Eleventh Circuit, to coordinate an opioid training event for Broward County in March 2018.  More than 60 attendees—including judges, magistrates, court staff, attorneys, child protective investigators, community-based care case managers, guardian ad litem representatives, and service providers—participated in the training, which focused on the opioid substances commonly used by families involved in child welfare and judicial systems; connections between parental opioid use and specific harms to children; and the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder.

Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, Eleventh Circuit, conducts workshops on the opioid crisis for judges, magistrates, court staff, and justice system partners.

Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, Eleventh Circuit, conducts workshops on the opioid crisis for judges, magistrates, court staff, and justice system partners.

The opioid crisis was also the focus of the dependency panel’s April 2018 in-person meeting.  Soon thereafter, panel members and OCI staff coordinated two opioid workshops for the 2018 Child Protection Summit in Orlando.  In addition, in June 2018, the OCI joined with the Florida Department of Children and Families to apply for a federal grant to help tackle the opioid crisis; with the grant funds, the Office of the State Courts Administrator has hired a court operations consultant to oversee this two-year project, which includes enhancing OCI’s data systems, conducting needs assessments, developing resources, and providing training and technology assistance for judges, magistrates, and court staff throughout the state.

Office of Court Improvement

The Office of Court Improvement (OCI) works to promote efficient and effective court processes and practices through a variety of improvement initiatives, including advancing the one family/one judge model, standardizing and expanding problem-solving dockets, and implementing trauma-responsive court practices.   Among their responsibilities, OCI staff provide or facilitate trainings and develop publications and other resources for family court judges, court personnel, and court users.  Among its major projects during the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, the OCI expanded the reach of its Domestic Violence Regional Trainings, significantly enhanced the web presence of its Institute on Interpersonal Violence, and created the Yammer Judicial Forum, an online community where judges can connect and discuss current court-related issues.  

Justice Pariente poses for a photo with staff from the Office of Court Improvement, whom she credits with having done “some of the heaviest lifting” in helping the branch implement its visionary family court and problem-solving court initiatives.

Justice Pariente poses for a photo with staff from the Office of Court Improvement, whom she credits with having done “some of the heaviest lifting” in helping the branch implement its visionary family court and problem-solving court initiatives.

In September 2014, the OCI began offering regional trainings to all judicial officers who handle any aspect of civil domestic violence (DV) injunctions.  Co-created by Judge Carroll Kelly, Miami-Dade County, and Judge Peter Ramsberger, Sixth Circuit, the trainings were conceived as a mechanism to enhance statewide consistency and uniformity and to encourage proactive sharing among judges across Florida.  During the trainings, attendees receive specialized DV training on issues such as the procedural and substantive matters pertaining to DV injunctions, the dynamics of DV, and the impact of DV on children.  Four additional trainings were offered during fiscal year 2017 – 18, including one that focused on technology and electronic stalking; two other trainings were offered in early 2019.  Thus far, more than 300 judges have participated in a regional training since its launch four-and-a-half years ago.  For information about upcoming trainings, see the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence Calendar.

Logo for Domestic Violence Prevention

In addition to facilitating the regional trainings, OCI staff made notable improvements to the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence website.  The “go to” source for judicial information about DV, this website has been reconfigured, making it user-friendly for all viewers, regardless of the device or browser used.  In addition, articles and resources have been updated, and the site is now easier to navigate.

Also, working with Judge Jack Helinger, Sixth Circuit, and Judge Terrance Ketchel, First Circuit, OCI staff created the Yammer Domestic Violence Statewide Judicial Forum: an online locale where Florida’s judicial officers can share information, resources, and training news with one another.  Yammer registrants can also connect with and ask questions of judges sitting on the same bench in other regions of the state; send messages to the entire group; send private messages to individuals or small groups of members; and share files and notes or upload articles and documents.  Currently, judges—who can access Yammer on their computers, phones, or tablets—can join judicial forums on the following topics: Domestic Violence; One Family/One Judge; Domestic Relations and Paternity; Dependency; Early Childhood Court; Delinquency; and Senior Judges.  Thus far, nearly 200 judges have registered for the Yammer Judicial Forum.  Inquiries may be sent to vcsupport@flcourts.org.  

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Problem-Solving Courts

Judge Steve Leifman, Miami-Dade County, chaired the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts and now chairs the Steering Committee on Problem- Solving Courts. Next to him is Justice Peggy Quince, who served as the justice liaison to the task force.

Judge Steve Leifman, Miami-Dade County, chaired the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts and now chairs the Steering Committee on Problem- Solving Courts. Next to him is Justice Peggy Quince, who served as the justice liaison to the task force.

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, 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 public safety as well as the participant’s success. 

The first problem-solving court was established in 1989, when then 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 (for more on early childhood court, see the Family Court article above).  Currently, Florida has 92 drug courts (46 adult felony, seven adult misdemeanor, 20 juvenile, 15 family dependency, and four driving under the influence courts); 25 mental health courts; 30 veterans courts; and 22 early childhood courts.  (This link goes to more information about Florida’s problem-solving courts; follow this link for a side-by-side view of the core components of the six most prevalent types of problem-solving courts in Florida.)

In 2017 – 2018, the governance and the funding methodology of Florida’s problem-solving courts underwent some notable changes. 

In July 2018, the supreme court created a new governance committee, the Steering Committee on Problem-Solving Courts, to address the needs of court-engaged individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders, using differentiated case management principles and other evidence-based and emerging best practices.  Chaired by Judge Steve Leifman, Miami-Dade County, this steering committee will continue and expand upon the work of the Task Force on Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues in the Courts.  First, using as its model the task force’s Florida Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards, which was approved by the supreme court in July 2017, the steering committee is charged with developing best practice standards for other problem-solving courts, namely, veterans court, juvenile drug court, family dependency drug court, driving under the influence court, and mental health court (note: in 2018, the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court finalized proposed standards for early childhood courts, which are pending approval by the court).  And, second, the steering committee has been working to finalize the problem-solving court certification program on which the task force began to focus in 2017; the steering committee is developing necessary protocols, forms, and tools and also determining the resources necessary to implement the certification program.  The program, which will be voluntary, will give Florida’s problem-solving courts a chance to demonstrate their adherence to the evidence-based best practice standards.  In developing problem-solving court standards and in establishing a certification program, the steering committee is working to ensure that Florida’s problem-solving courts are operating effectively and with fidelity to the standards scientifically shown to produce better outcomes. 

In addition, the judicial branch began addressing changes in the ways problem-solving courts are funded at the state level.  In the past, lawmakers appropriated the funding for these courts individually.  However, for fiscal year 2018 – 19, the legislature allotted a new, special appropriation in the amount of $8.9 million for problem-solving courts; this appropriation rolled existing, recurring appropriations for problem-solving courts into one appropriation, infused another $2.5 million in recurring funds, and provided additional funding to support these courts, directing the supreme court’s Trial Court Budget Commission (TCBC) to allocate these funds with certain conditions.  To oversee this responsibility, the TCBC created the Problem-Solving Court Advisory Group; originally chaired by Chief Judge Elijah Smiley, Fourteenth Circuit, the advisory group comprised members of the TCBC, the Steering Committee on Problem-Solving Courts, and the Steering Committee on Children and Families in the Court.  After allocating all the funds for the 2018 – 19 fiscal year, the group transitioned to a subcommittee of the Steering Committee on Problem-Solving Courts and is now chaired by Judge Leifman.  The subcommittee planned a long-term strategy for how funds will be allocated in future fiscal years, and this strategy was approved by the TCBC in February 2019.  This change in the way problem-solving courts are funded by the state is indeed consequential, for it has given the judicial branch more discretion with the apportionment of state dollars.

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Alternative Dispute Resolution

Mediation and other alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes provide litigants with the  opportunity to resolve their conflicts without judicial intervention.  Florida’s courts have been promoting these processes for more than 40 years.  Florida’s first citizen dispute settlement center was established in 1975, in Dade County.  Soon after, the state’s first county court mediation program was established in Broward County.  Then in 1988, following a study conducted by the Legislative Study Commission on Alternative Dispute Resolution, mediation and arbitration were brought under the umbrella of the Florida courts system.  Since then, Florida has developed one of the most comprehensive court-connected mediation programs in the country.  (This link goes to more information about ADR and mediation.) 

Every year, Dispute Resolution Center staff conduct advanced continuing mediation education trainings across the state. These free, six-hour trainings focus largely on mediator ethics but often address diversity and interpersonal violence topics as well. Pictured here is the “class photo” of the county mediators from the Seventh Circuit who participated in this training in December 2018.

Every year, Dispute Resolution Center staff conduct advanced continuing mediation education trainings across the state. These free, six-hour trainings focus largely on mediator ethics but often address diversity and interpersonal violence topics as well. Pictured here is the “class photo” of the county mediators from the Seventh Circuit who participated in this training in December 2018.

To assist the courts in developing ADR programs and to conduct education and research on ADR in general, then Chief Justice Joseph Boyd and FSU College of Law Dean Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte established the Florida Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) in the mid-1980s.  Housed in the supreme court building, the DRC also provides staff assistance to the five supreme court mediation boards and committees; certifies mediators and mediation training programs in five areas (county, family, circuit, dependency, and appellate); oversees the grievance procedure against mediators and parenting coordinators; sponsors an annual conference for mediators and arbitrators and provides basic and advanced mediation training to volunteer mediators; and publishes a newsletter and an annual ADR Resource Handbook

Currently, more than 5,600 mediators serve the citizens of Florida.  Every two years, to enhance their professional competence and to maintain their certification, mediators are required to earn at least 16 hours of continuing mediator education (which includes instruction in mediator ethics, interpersonal violence education, and diversity/cultural awareness).  Each year, to help mediators satisfy this requirement, the DRC sponsors a statewide conference that offers two days of education for ADR neutrals in the areas of mediation, arbitration, and collaborative processes; conducts three 20-hour certified county mediation training programs for the small claims mediators who volunteer for the trial court mediation programs; conducts between six and eight advanced mediator ethics and professional programs for certified mediators working in court-connected mediation programs; and, in collaboration with local schools, sponsors an annual Mediation Week celebration at the supreme court.  Through offering these education programs and trainings, the DRC helps to ensure that certified mediators are effectively and professionally performing their challenging work and are well-equipped to meet the needs of those they serve.  All told, in fiscal year 2017 – 18, approximately 200 mediators across the state reaped the benefits of trainings conducted by DRC staff. 

In addition to being the predominant providers of ADR education and training events throughout the year, the DRC staffs five supreme court committees: the Mediator Ethics Advisory Committee (which offers written ethics advisory opinions based on questions from certified and court-appointed mediators); the Mediation Training Review Board (which considers complaints against certified mediation training programs); the Mediator Qualifications and Discipline Review Board (which hears grievance issues involving certified and court-appointed mediators, including issues of good moral character); and the Parenting Coordinator Review Board (which hears grievances involving qualified and court-appointed parenting coordinators).  The DRC is also responsible for overseeing the discipline of certified and court-appointed mediators and of qualified and court-appointed parenting coordinators.  (Take this link for more information about the supreme court’s mediation boards and committees.)  

In February 2018, Dispute Resolution Center staff offered a free, six-hour mediator ethics and professionalism training to Fifth Circuit mediators; altogether, more than 60 mediators from all across the circuit attended.

In February 2018, Dispute Resolution Center staff offered a free, six-hour mediator ethics and professionalism training to Fifth Circuit mediators; altogether, more than 60 mediators from all across the circuit attended.

The fifth committee the DRC staffs is the Committee on ADR Rules and Policy, which provides the court with recommendations relating to all aspects of ADR policy and rules, legislation, model ADR practices, mediator certification and renewal requirements (including continuing mediator education), and mediation training program standards and requirements.  In 2017, then Chief Justice Labarga directed this committee to work with the Trial Court Budget Commission and the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability to consider issues related to eligibility and fee equality for court-connected family mediation services provided to litigants, including indigent parties.  To address these charges, the committee established the Mediation Fee and Civil Indigent Workgroup, whose 2018 recommendations were approved by the Committee on ADR Rules and Policy and adopted by the supreme court.  The workgroup is now working to implement the recommendations, which will ensure that the eligibility for services is fairly determined, financial affidavits are used as the basis for fee assessment, and the fees parties are assessed are based on the income of each individual party, not the income of the opposing party.  

Dispute Resolution Center staff also conduct trainings for some of the state’s youngest mediators. In October 2018, Fairview Middle School students studying conflict resolution skills marked Mediation Week with a visit to the supreme court. In addition to having an opportunity to hear Justice Quince speak and to pose for a photo with her (see above), they participated in a variety of education sessions.

Dispute Resolution Center staff also conduct trainings for some of the state’s youngest mediators. In October 2018, Fairview Middle School students studying conflict resolution skills marked Mediation Week with a visit to the supreme court. In addition to having an opportunity to hear Justice Quince speak and to pose for a photo with her (see above), they participated in a variety of education sessions.

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