Putting Family Matters under One Legal Roof Law Experts Say Justice System Is Improved through Unified Courts Series: UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF THE FAMILY

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TO Bob Shepherd Jr., "It's no accident that the Bible uses a child-custody case as the supreme test of King Solomon's judicial wisdom." Professor Shepherd, who teaches courses in family law and juvenile justice at the University of Richmond (Va.) Law School, observes that a uniquely weighty burden rests on judges who make decisions affecting society's youngest and most vulnerable members.

Shepherd, like a growing number of legal scholars, judges, and child-welfare professionals, believes that the judicial system can be improved for children and families through the establishment of "unified family courts" in states where family-law issues are currently adjudicated in as many as three or four different forums, sometimes simultaneously.

Critics of such fragmented judicial systems, which exist in most states, say these systems often are costly to litigants, are inefficient in the use of judicial resources, and can result in the issuance of diverse or even conflicting court orders affecting a single family.

In Massachusetts, for instance, most divorce, custody, paternity, and other domestic-relations disputes are adjudicated in family and probate courts; delinquency charges are prosecuted in the juvenile courts; while child-abuse and neglect emergencies and certain child-support cases are handled within the state's district courts.

Not infrequently, though, families can have problems in more than one area, such as when child-abuse claims are part of a divorce fight.

"You can waste time running from court to court," says Boston lawyer Mary Schmidt. "And sometimes cases get delayed because records are slow getting from one court to another."

In all or part of 13 states, however, exclusive jurisdiction over family and children's issues has been granted to a single court system, says Jeffrey Kuhn, director of the Family Court Resource Center, part of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) in Reno, Nev. The NCJFCJ has long been the leading proponent of unified family courts.

Rhode Island established the first unified family court in 1961, and Hawaii instituted what is probably the most comprehensive family-court system in 1965. Other states with broad family courts include Delaware, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In recent years, Florida, Virginia, and two other states have implemented pilot family-court projects, Mr. Kuhn says, and about 20 states are examining unified-family-court proposals.

Last month the governing body of the American Bar Association, which has supported "unified children and family courts" since 1980, adopted a resolution that reconfirmed the ABA's commitment, elaborated its vision of such courts, and pledged to promote their implementation.

Michael Town, the incoming chief judge of Hawaii's family court, says the role of unified courts should be to administer "therapeutic justice for families and children. …