One Family – One Judge

Judicial continuity through the life of a family law case, such as divorce or custody, enhances decision-making because the judicial officer becomes familiar with the case, the parties, and the issues that brought them to court.

Called the OFOJ model, the “one family, one judge” routine is considered a best practice in juvenile and family cases, according to the Resource Guidelines, a publication of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) of Reno, Nevada. The OFOJ model has been used successfully in Israel for almost 20 years.

In the one family, one judge regime, the same judge hears all divorce, custody and support matters involving one family, whether the issues unfold over weeks or over years.

Judge Leslie Gorbey, a Pennsylvania judge who served on the year 2000 task force, which made the recommendation to adopt the practice states “It’s considered one of the best practices.” “Anyone who is filing a complaint knows what courtroom they’re going to be in and what judge they’re going to be dealing with,” she said.

Gorbey and President Judge Joseph C. Madenspacher, a former family court judge, said the “one judge” approach gives families more stability.

“It keeps everyone on the same page,” Gorbey said. “We get to know people.” The approach also simplifies scheduling and saves time, Madenspacher said. The judge already knows a family’s general situation, which eliminates the need for lengthy review at each hearing. “The hearings are much shorter,” he said. “We can do it in two hours instead of doing it in two days.”

The “one judge” concept also eliminates “shopping” for a judge, Madenspacher said. Appeals are infrequent, since the parties would face the same judge. “Going back doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It’s highly unlikely [the judge] has changed their mind.”

Until recently there has been little empirical research to support its validity, but research now supports the OFOJ as a sound practice. Working with the Baltimore City Juvenile Court, a professor from the University of Maryland (UM) School of Social Work, in partnership with the NCJFCJ, assessed how OFOJ affects case processing and outcomes. Research staff and UM social work students designed and tested a stakeholder survey identifying perceptions of OFOJ and compared cases both before and after OFOJ implementation. The surveys focused on perceptions of the OFOJ model and how it had affected workload; the case file review focused on outcomes related to timeliness and permanency.

OFOJ and Timeliness

One 2013 study – “Improving Juvenile Dependency Case Timeliness Through Use of the One family, One Judge model, ” which was published Juvenile and Family Court Journal – demonstrated that every additional judge on the case increased time to permanency by 31 days. For children this means they spend one additional month in care per judge assigned to their case. Resolving cases quicker improves the courts’ ability to meet statutory timelines and better outcomes for children and families. Moreover, a follow-up study showed when there is only one judicial officer per case, the majority of cases have only one or no continuances. Every two judicial officers added to the case resulted in one additional continuance. This indicates that judicial continuity can be an effective way to improve case efficiency.

Results demonstrated that continuances delayed case events up to the adjudication hearing. However, they did not delay time to permanency.

OFOJ and Permanency Outcomes

A pre-post design – “ One Family, One judge Practice Effects on Children: Permanency Outcomes on Case Closure and Beyond” which was published in the Journal of Juvenile Justice – examined the effects of implementation of OFOJ on permanency outcomes. Based on a review of 89 cases, the results showed that post-implementation cases were more likely to result in reunification through dismissal of case petitions and reunifications within 12 months of removal compared to pre-implementation cases. There were no differences in reentry into care, implying that the timelier permanency outcomes did not result in detriments to safety.

Although limited in scope, this study provided a first step in examining judicial continuity in juvenile dependency case outcomes. Even without full implementation of OFOJ (Baltimore City oversees the emergency removal before assigning a case to a home court), the changes in judicial practice were related to improved permanency outcomes. While it may be hard to say that the OFOJ caused these changes, positive relations following the implementation were seen. Replication and expansion of this research with more rigorous methodology could provide a complete understanding of how important judicial continuity might be in complex cases such as these.

Professional Stakeholder’s Experience with OFOJ

Another study – “Professional Stakeholders’ Experience with Baltimore City’s One Family, One Judge Docketing,” which was published in Family Court Review – reported that overall, perceptions of the OFOJ model in Baltimore City are positive. Many stakeholders feel that it improves fairness and consistency of decision-making, at the same time not adversely affecting the court process. However, concerns were raised regarding the OFOJ practice. The majority of these focused on implementation, scheduling, and familiarity among stakeholders. Identifying these concerns and ways to mitigate them will help future courts address issues when or before they arise and provide material for continued research. This survey assessment provided valuable insight into the OFOJ practice and a solid foundation for future work.

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