Crucial decisions affecting the future of women and children are made in family court every day. Unfortunately, resources for legal representation of individuals involved in family court matters are scarce. We are focused on improving women’s experience in family court through ongoing advocacy, calls for policy reform and daily personalized assistance via our Telephone & Information Referral Service.
In response to the powerlessness and frustration expressed by thousands of women using Philadelphia’s Family Court system, we conducted an in-depth analysis of the court’s Domestic Relations Division, resulting in our report, Justice in the Domestic Relations Division of Philadelphia Family Court: A Report to the Community Our research revealed that the Division performed far below criteria set by the Commission on Trial Court Performance Standards, and made justice elusive for many of its users. Litigants were not accorded due process in many respects. Non-English speaking litigants were not even afforded language access. Given the prevalence of women as petitioners in family law matters, we raised questions about whether gender bias contributes to the Court’s low prestige and insufficient resources.
The building itself was sub-standard and endangered litigants by, for example, forcing victims of abuse to wait in the same area as their alleged abuser before entering court. We found domestic relations proceedings were mostly taking place behind closed doors with little to no public access, though denying public access is blatantly unconstitutional. Our research and advocacy fueled a movement taken up by the legal and judicial community to build a new, unified family courthouse in Philadelphia that accommodate litigants’ needs. Philadelphia’s new family courthouse opened its doors in 2014.
Our family law policy advocacy, including reviewing and commenting on pending legislation and proposed rule changes, challenges barriers to justice in custody, support and domestic abuse proceedings.
We also seek to empower women to effectively represent themselves in family court. Due to a scarcity of resources in a city with the highest level of deep poverty in the country, approximately 90% of women entering family court proceedings do so without professional representation. To that end, we have developed consumer brochures and forms with instructions for completion to help litigants represent themselves in these complex and often mystifying legal proceedings. In addition, we assist women who call asking for help navigating court proceedings through our in-house Telephone & Information Referral Service. In turn, calls to the Referral Service keep us informed about challenges women face in Philadelphia family court.