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W.Va. committee looks to design new family court system

January 23, 2001

W.Va. committee looks to design new family court system



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The state of West Virginia is taking the first steps toward building a new system for resolving family disputes.

A statewide committee is meeting to design a new family court system to replace family law masters, who now handle most family disputes.

The committee is trying to determine the wishes of voters. In Nov. 7 balloting, 73 percent of voters favored the concept of creating a unified family court system.

"We have no clear-cut idea what the new court system will look like," said April Dowler, one of two family law masters serving the Eastern Panhandle. She also serves on the committee that will make recommendations to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals about the new system. The Legislature will have the final word on the matter.

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Currently, family law masters are appointed by Circuit judges. They must be lawyers and have a background in domestic relations.

When the system began in 1986, it was part of the state Department of Health and Human Resources and designed primarily to help with child support collections.

Over the years, the family law masters began taking on more duties. They now handle divorce, child custody, child support, paternity and other family-related issues.

On April 1, they will add domestic violence cases when they are referred by magistrates, who now handle them. They make decisions that are sent up to the Circuit judges.

"I'd say 99 times out of 100, the Circuit Court judge signs the order," said Dowler, who is married to Herald-Mail Publisher John League.

Based on the number of cases so far this year, the two family law masters will hold hearings on about 1,600 domestic violence cases now handled by the nine magistrates in the Eastern Panhandle. That number of cases on top of an already busy caseload causes Dowler some concern, she said.

"It's very hard, when you're hearing that number of cases, getting through that to sort out what is dangerous and what is not dangerous," she said.

Dowler said she worries not only about letting someone through who later commits a horrible act, but being too tough on people because she doesn't want that to happen.

The new system she and the committee are discussing will be a family court, Dowler said.

"Many, many states have family courts," she said. "It is not a new idea."

The appointed law masters probably will be replaced by elected judges, she said.

No date has been set by which a new system must be in place. Dowler said the Legislature doesn't have to create one because the constitutional amendment passed by voters just gave the right to do it.

Dowler said she believes the Legislature will adopt a new plan.

"We've been moving that way for quite a while," she said.

The committee's recommendations are due Feb. 8. The Legislature begins meeting Feb. 14.

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