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5 Things to Know About State Civil Courts

5 Opportunities for Legislators to Improve State Civil Courts for Families

  • Simplify, clarify and define terminology and processes to help families understand their options to resolve civil matters.
    • Maine SB 485 (2021) requires a landlord to attach to an eviction summons and complaint served on a tenant a notice that contains: A) a description of the court procedure to be followed, B) a statement that failure to appear at any conference or hearing may result in default judgment in favor of the landlord, C) a list of rental assistance programs available to residential tenants, D) a list of resources that provide legal information and representation, E) a list of resources that provide housing counseling, F) a statement that either party may request or the court may refer the parties to mediation on any issue and G) a court-approved form to request mediation.
    • Washington HB 1320 (2021) clarifies and simplifies civil protection order statutes to make them more understandable and accessible to victims seeking relief and to respondents who are subject to the court processes. The law modernizes and expands the tools available to parties regarding civil protection orders and moves statutes related to all six types of protection orders into a single chapter of the Revised Code of Washington to improve accessibility and ease of understanding of these statutes.
  • Provide access to counsel in civil court proceedings.
    • Georgia HB 460 (2023) requires the court to appoint an attorney for an alleged dependent child and any child receiving extended care youth services from the state’s Division of Family and Children Services as soon as practicable and before the first court hearing that may substantially affect the child’s interests.
    • Washington SB 5160 (2021) guarantees access to counsel through the Washington Office of Civil Legal Aid for indigent tenants facing eviction.
  • Mitigate the negative effects of civil court processes on families at each stage of involvement—before, during and after.
    • New Mexico SB 31 (2023) mitigates negative effects on families before court involvement by providing an out-of-court alternative to temporary minor guardianship. The law allows for arrangements between the state's Department of Children, Youth and Families and New Mexico families that become involved in the child welfare system before removal of a child is necessary. It provides parents with legal counsel before they agree to voluntary placement and provides children with a guardian ad litem to represent their best interest. The law also permits the department to take custody of children before voluntary placement so prospective guardians become eligible for guardianship assistance payments.
    • Maine SB 648 (2022) mitigates negative effects on families during court involvement by requiring the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court to establish and require annual training and education to educate justices about domestic violence and child abuse and neglect issues.
    • Nevada AB 107 (2017) mitigates negative effects on families after court involvement by requiring records relating to summary eviction be automatically sealed either upon the entry of a court order denying or dismissing the action or when a landlord fails to file an affidavit within 30 days after a tenant files an affidavit contesting the eviction. The law also authorizes the court to seal an eviction file upon a written agreement between the landlord and the tenant or upon a motion by the tenant if the court finds the eviction should be set aside pursuant to court rule or in the interests of justice.
  • Improve data collection and analysis for civil courts.
    • Texas HB 1182 (2023) tasks the Texas Judicial Council with monthly court activity statistics and case-level information on the amount and character of the business transacted by the court. For counties with a population over 1 million, these data shall be made publicly available and searchable online.
    • Indiana HB 1214 (2022) requires the court clerk or court administrator to compile certain data on evictions and furnish the data to the office of judicial administration. The office is then required to include these data in the Indiana Judicial Report.
  • Build productive relationships between the legislature and the judiciary.
    • Colorado HB 1280 (2023) established the Colorado Access to Justice Commission to recommend legislative and regulatory changes that improve access to justice for all Coloradans. Commissioners are appointed by the governor, legislative leadership, the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado legal organizations.
    • Illinois HB 3111 (2013) established a task force to review the statutory fees imposed or assessed on civil litigants and criminal defendants. Members are/were appointed by legislative leadership, the association representing circuit court clerks, the governor and the Illinois Supreme Court.
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