By Dabney Miller, WLP Associate Director
Philadelphia is finally getting a new Family Courthouse. Construction reached the topping off point on May 2, 2013, when dignitaries, advocates, and construction workers signed a beam, which was then hoisted to the top of the sixteenth floor, amid cheers from the crowd. Ten years ago, the Women’s Law Project released Justice in the Domestic Relations Division of Philadelphia Family Court: A Report to the Community. Our lead recommendation was a new courthouse; we argued that critical concerns about safety, openness, and the fair dispensing of justice could not be addressed in the current building, which is a labyrinth of crowded, narrow halls, courtrooms too small for observers, and waiting rooms where conflict plays out. Our report became a rallying cry, and we are delighted to have been part of the Topping-Off Ceremony for the new Family Courthouse, which will also unify the juvenile and domestic relations divisions.
Much remains to be done, however. Tens of thousands of people come to this Court each year to resolve personal and intimate family matters involving domestic violence, child support, child custody, divorce, and dependency. Profound and life-altering decisions are made in the Court about where and with whom children will live, when and under what circumstances parents may see their children, and who will make decisions about the education, health care, and religious upbringing of children. Its judges have the awesome responsibility of issuing orders to protect people from violence and stalking. It is imperative that those coming to the new Courthouse find justice after they arrive. Above all else, the courthouse must be a place that litigants can come and go without fear and where children and parents may have safe and supervised visits when required by the law. Second, the court must be open to the public consistent with constitutional standards. The bright light of open courts always leads to fairer processes and outcomes. Third, this courthouse must be accessible to those Philadelphians who may not be able to read or understand legal processes. Ninety per cent of Family Court litigants cannot afford lawyers, so they must advocate for themselves in an intimidating system, often at a time of crisis in their lives. Many technologies now exist to assist them in completing forms and filing petitions. These technologies, along with trained staff who are motivated to help, will make all the difference for Philadelphia’s families. Finally, the court must be adequately staffed so that judges, masters, conference officers, and other individuals who work with the public have time to handle their cases in a way that assures the litigants that their positions are heard and carefully considered.