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Will the repair work?

March 24, 1999

Before adjourning Monday, the West Virginia Legislature did its best to clean up a family-law bill marred by a lawmakers' squabble that led to it being passed with a number of technical errors. It remains to be seen, however, whether lawmakers' best efforts at a last-minute repair were good enough.

The bill begins the transition from the current system of family law masters to a new, separate family court, with its own elected judges. Family judges will answer to current circuit court judges until the public approves a constitutional amendment making them full-fledged judges.

That's not what worries the current family law masters, however. Their concern is that under the new law, couples who are already divorced will have until Jan. 1, 2001 to petition for modification of child custody based on the bill's new rules.

New rules? Under the bill, the "primary caretaker" no longer gets automatic custody of the children. Instead, parents are required to come up with their own plan for caring for their children after divorce. In theory, requiring people to put aside their differences for their children's sake is a good idea. In practice, couples who've had difficulty agreeing on other issues may find planning for custody nearly impossible.

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The increase in litigation might be possible for the new system to absorb if the lawmakers had given the masters what they sought - 45 new family court judges, each with his or her own case manager.

Instead, the present complement of 14 full-time and 13 part-time masters will be replaced by only 31 full-time judges, with case managers to be phased in later. If you're doing the math, that's an increase of only four people adjudicating these matters, at a time when the legislature has basically okayed re-opening thousands of previously settled cases.

No doubt corrective measures will be applied in the next session. For now, the system has taken a turn away from the prevalent government practice of trying to solve everything. In this case, the best help families of divorce may get is self-help.

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