Maine’s court system forces families in crisis and transition to deal with two separate structures, District Court and Probate Court, each with their own jurisdictions, judges and way of doing things, unnecessarily complicating a process that is by its nature already factious and confusing.

A case can be made for a significant overhaul of this system, specifically when it comes to Probate Court, which has operated the same way in Maine since 1855.

But for now, more modest and targeted reform is appropriate. L.D. 890, now before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee along with a beneficial amendment, would give exclusive jurisdiction to District Court at times when there are multiple cases across different courts involving the same child, allowing for uniformity where there is now the potential for conflict,

It is past time for the Legislature to make this change, which was recommended by the Judicial Branch’s Family Division Task Force in 2014, as well as by other reports dating back 30 years.

PARALLEL CASES

Family matters such as divorce, child support, paternity, parental and grandparental rights, and protection from abuse orders are handled through District Court, which is part of the State Judicial Branch and features 36 full-time judges.

Minor guardianship, adoption, termination of parental rights and name changes are handled through Probate Court, a county-based system with 16 part-time judges — one in each county, regardless of the population or caseload.

Problems arise, however, when two or more of these matters, running across the two courts but involving a single child, are being adjudicated at the same time. These cases then must play out in the different courts, with different judges, fact-finders, schedules, even different locations, often producing inconsistent and conflicting court orders.

Most of all, it can drag out the time when a child’s stability and security are in question, keeping the family stuck in legal limbo and locked in what can be a harmful and antagonistic process.

For example, conflicting orders, based on different sets of information, can be produced when a mother wins custody of a child in District Court, while the child’s grandparents seek guardianship in Probate Court.

Or a case can lag unnecessarily if changing parental rights, a District Court function, is the best way to resolve a contested adoption, which occurs in Probate Court.

“It causes delay, expense, and confusion, and it makes cases that are already difficult and emotional even more complex and contentious,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, one of the bill’s sponsors and a lawyer with nearly 40 years’ experience practicing in Maine courts.

END TO CONFUSION

That isn’t the case in other states, and it shouldn’t be in Maine.

Allowing those kinds of cases to be merged into one in District Court, and giving the court continuing jurisdiction over all matters related to the child, would help end that delay and confusion.

It would also allow emergencies to be handled by the larger and more flexible and responsive District Court system, which is better equipped to address complicated family needs.

At the same time, it would lighten the caseloads in Probate Court, where the lack of resources is increasingly an issue.

The increasing caseload is just one reason that Probate Court, which again has operated the same way for more than 150 years, may be ripe for broader reform. But that reform could be costly, and would certainly be politically difficult.

L.D. 890, however, is a limited proposal that takes care of a specific and growing problem. Lawmakers should pass it, and ensure that decisions involving the care and custody of a child are made faster and with fewer complications.


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