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Bill would add local family court judges

March 01, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - The West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday passed a bill that would add a third family court judge in 2009 for Berkeley and Jefferson counties, where an increasing caseload is causing substantial delays in proceedings, according to 24th Circuit family court judge Sally Jackson.

"If you file for a divorce today, it probably will be 90 days before you get your first hearing," Jackson said. "People shouldn't have to wait that long."

If enacted, House Bill 3106 would allow for the election of 10 more family court judges statewide in 2008 and redraw nine circuits. The new judges would office Jan. 1, 2009.

A workload assessment by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) recommended in November 2006 that the West Virginia family court system be increased by 22 judges to 57.

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"It's a pretty good bill, from what I've seen," said Jackson, who with fellow 24th circuit judge William Wertman was part of a "realignment committee" that assisted with the NCSC's effort to assess the family court system's workload.

In 2004 and 2005, Jackson said she had the highest number of new cases of any family court judge in West Virginia. She and Wertman each handle about 1,600 new filings per year, which Jackson said was practically double what is recommended per judge. That number doesn't include another 200 or so old cases that are revisited each year, Jackson said.

"It's just getting worse and worse every year," said Jackson, who believes the additional judge will be a "tremendous help."

The National Center for State Courts report concluded that "every family court circuit (in West Virginia) demonstrates a need for additional judicial resources, with a number of family court judges essentially handling the workload of two judges."

To properly handle the more than 55,000 cases that enter the family court system annually, the NCSC recommended an increase of 22 judges instead of 10.

Family court judges are charged with presiding in divorce, annulment, separate maintenance, paternity, grandparent visitation, and issues involving allocation of parental responsibility and family support proceedings, except those incidental to child abuse and neglect proceedings. Family court judges also hold final hearings in domestic violence civil proceedings.

After holding 20 hearings Wednesday, Jackson said she enjoys helping families, but feels she sometimes doesn't have adequate time to explain to people what they need to know about such matters as custodial support.

"It's a great disservice to families," Jackson said.

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