On a Caribbean island big changes are sweeping across Family Court like a tidal wave…
Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island county off the coast Venezuela; it has a combined population of 1.4 million. The capitol city is Port of Spain.

Trinidad and Tobago has begun an innovative project to improve Family Court’s operations and it’s response to the people it serves. Visitors from all over the world are visiting the new pilot project Court in Port of Spain.

(August 2014) Chairman of the Court’s monitoring committee, Justice of Appeal Gregory Smith, spoke to Julian Neaves of “Trinidad and Tobago Newsday” about an important pilot project designed to improve Family Court.

The Family Court of Trinidad and Tobago has implemented a pilot Family Court in Port-of-Spain to improve the quality of Court services and promote conciliation between parties. Justice Smith says about this new system, “The Family Court was not based on a foreign model but they ‘forged ahead on (their) own’ and created a system they thought would work best for Trinidad and Tobago.” The Court was intended to serve the capital city of Port-of-Spain and its districts. The Family Court pilot project is a test run for future projects in the Magistrates’ Court and High Court.

Justice Smith identified three issues the pilot Family Court would address “…the prominence of family matters in modern society; the adversarial system of justice in which we operate was inappropriate for family matters; and finally, that the rules and operational systems adopted in the courts were outdated and needed changing.”

Justice Smith believes that family matters impact all levels of society. A breakdown in the family causes problems in society on all levels-socially, spiritually, economically, financially (etc) and directly affects local communities. Further, children who are not receiving proper care and nurturing, or children who do not have a stable home life, often become anti-social, self-destructive and face problems coping in the real world. This results in an increase in crime, gang activity and family dysfunction. Ongoing litigation in Court, and increased hostility in families in turn negatively affects society, and our children.

Justice Smith elaborates that an adversarial court system is “wholly inappropriate for family matters” because the fighting and negative emotions experienced in high conflict court battles often continue long after the final settlement, and negatively impact outcomes for families and children. Justice Smith believes the best way to resolve hostility and empower families is through conciliation, with the Court supporting those efforts and providing resources necessary for amicable settlement.

Some of the rules and operational procedures Justice Smith felt needed to be changed include that Judges are over burdened, taking on as many as 15-20 cases per day. A large, demanding caseload decreases a Judge’s ability to address matters. If a Judge could not attend to all the issues before him in a day, his docket would pile up–and a back log would begin. Judges would also change frequently as case loads were shifted to accommodate the volume, which means families were also shuffled between judges. In the pilot Family Court, a docket system would be implemented and one judge will be assigned to a case from beginning to end. The docket system streamlines the Court process and is designed to increase transparency.

Another new feature of the pilot Family Court is that social services is integrated into the Court system. In the previous system, a litigant would need a referral for social services, and may have to wait 2-3 months to get help. The pilot Court includes in-house services of social workers, mediators and probation officers (and other necessary professionals). The services of the social workers include counseling, to a limited extent, and mediation. The public can access services from a social worker without having proceedings in court and without hiring an attorney. Judges can also issue referrals to psychologists, clinical psychologists or similar professionals for litigants at no cost (paid for by the Court), and for non-litigious matters.

Other services offered in the Family Court building include parenting classes, co-parenting programs and the Holistic Opportunities for Empowerment (HOPE) program. The Court also features new, child-friendly waiting areas for youth and teens.

The Court building is also unified in that it brings together the both High Court judges and magistrates adjudicate in one building, addressing matters in their respective jurisdiction “The magistrates who sit in the Family Court can only deal with cases brought by persons resident within the magisterial district of St George West in which Port-of-Spain is located. There is no similar restriction on the jurisdiction of the High Court Judges comprising the Court. The Family Court, however, has an identity of its own. It is a single integrated institution, housed in a building which is dedicated exclusively to it.”

Another feature is increased Court staffing, which has been an issue of concern in the past. Waiting times for litigants has been greatly reduced.

Funding still remains a challenge for the pilot Court, as the dedicated funding for this project was removed. Added services, unifying the Courts and other changes have also created a need for more space in the building. A planned expansion of the Court will convert the former St. Joseph’s Convent in San Fernando into the Court. The cost is $151 million, construction is expected to begin in January 2015, and be completed in 2 years. When the Court opens its doors in San Fernando, persons living in San Fernando, Siparia, Point Fortin and Princes Town can file applications there. There are also hopes to establish a Family Court in East and Central Trinidad.

Justice Smith believes an investment into an improved Family Court system is a worthy case, “And you will see it immediately in the society. A more holistic and healthy society.”

“Justice Smith: Family court for a holistic society” By Julien Neaves, August 17 2014. Trinidad and Tobago Newsday: http://www.newsday.co.tt/crime_and_court/0,199209.html

NOTE: It is encouraging that Trinidad and Tobago is implementing these Family Court reform measures. I sincerely hope that Family Court procedures will improve, and work to assist and support families and improve the court system overall.

Being a victim of family court abuse, I encourage the Courts to create mechanisms where litigants can voice complaints without fear of retaliation, and with an independent, neutral agency to handle complaints. There needs to be increased accountability, as well as transparency. I encourage strong discipline against Court officers who violate the law or act outside of professional standards.