Divorced From Reality

A Colorado Supreme Court commission says this state's justice system could do more to help families -- starting with the parents.

Gagel, who researched the time it took to complete divorce cases in Arapahoe County the year before and the year after simplified dissolution was introduced, found that 25 percent more cases were concluded after the pilot program began. "I've had people say to me, 'This is so much better than I thought it would be,'" she says. "They always know a date [for another status conference] is set before they leave. I think on the whole, people feel like the courts are providing the public service they feel they should get."

Word of this new way of handling divorces quickly spread to judges across the state -- judges with full dockets who wanted to see an end to lengthy divorce proceedings and who also wanted to introduce some civility to the process. Simplified dissolution is now being practiced in half of the state's 22 judicial districts. No longer considered a pilot program in Denver, Arapahoe and El Paso counties, simplified dissolution is currently standard practice in those jurisdictions.

"The biggest benefit simplified dissolution provides is that the parties and counsel have easy access to the court on an interim basis," Mills says. "In counties where there is not simplified dissolution and you need to file a motion to compel someone to produce documents, your motion can sit there for weeks and weeks, and your case can't go forward because you need those documents. If that happened in a county with simplified dissolution, I would call the court clerk and indicate that we have a problem and request a status conference with the judge, and that would happen within a very reasonable period of time. And the issue would usually get resolved in ten minutes over the phone."

Attorney Bill Hunnicutt wants to see families being treated fairly in the legal system.
Anthony Camera
Attorney Bill Hunnicutt wants to see families being treated fairly in the legal system.

Still, judges and attorneys recognize that even with simplified dissolution, divorce is an ugly process far too often in this state. And for the past eighteen months, another judicial committee has been looking at ways to make the court system more family-friendly. The undertaking was the brainchild of Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey, who decided that family law was an area of the courts that needed improving -- and soon.

More than 50 percent of all new district court cases filed in this state involve families, and divorce accounts for 30 percent of those. That's not a recent trend; back in 1982, 55 percent of all new district court cases involved families, and in 1972, 61 percent involved families. (During those years, the number of divorce filings remained fairly steady.) What's more alarming is that the number of new district court filings has risen by 50 percent since 1972 -- and the courts haven't grown along with their caseloads.

"We've had a remarkable doubling of filings in the last thirty years, primarily as a function of population growth, but what have the General Assembly and the judicial branch been doing to keep pace with that?" asks Resa Gilats, management analyst for the State Court Administrator's Office. "It's about time that the way we do business in the courts better serves families."

In January 2001, Mullarkey created the Commission on Families in the Colorado Courts, a group of 33 judges, attorneys, lawmakers, child advocates and human services officials whose members include Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, former Denver district attorney Norm Early, former state senator Dottie Wham, and Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis.

"Most people come into contact with the court system in one of two ways: through jury duty or through a family case, such as divorce or domestic violence," says Kourlis. "The biggest and most important piece of all of this is that we have to elevate family cases to a level that is commensurate with the importance of these cases to the families themselves."

Commission members met several times over the last eighteen months and traveled the state for nine public hearings, where they got an earful about how the courts have been failing families. Their efforts will culminate late this month with the release of 79 recommendations about how to improve Colorado's courts.

Those recommendations, which will soon go to the Colorado Supreme Court and the Colorado Legislature, hold a lot of promise. The commission wants to make the court system less adversarial for parents whose children are in juvenile court, those who are parties to domestic disputes, and families involved in dependency-and-neglect cases.

Whether the commission can do anything to make divorce less adversarial is still a matter of debate.

Cyndee Struyk had been a stay-at-home mom for fourteen years, working only part-time here and there, and at 38, the idea of restarting her career was frightening. But once she realized her marriage was unsalvageable, she began getting ready.

Cyndee already had a master's degree in business administration and had worked many years before as a stockbroker at Charles Schwab. As her marriage neared the end, she took a position at a financial planning firm, where she became licensed to sell insurance.

Four months after she filed for divorce, Cyndee started working as a financial advisor on disability, retirement and life- and health-insurance plans for individuals and businesses. Even though she was working full-time, she was paid on commission. The magistrate assigned to their simplified-dissolution divorce had awarded Cyndee maintenance for four years, but she worried that it wasn't enough time to get back on her feet after more than a decade out of the workforce. "What she didn't take into account was that my husband had 25 years to get his career going," Cyndee says. "At one of the status conferences, the magistrate told me that maybe I should get a second job. I lost it in that meeting and started bawling."

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