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Dealing with families in conflict

The recently established Family Court brings with it a revised understanding of the dynamics of family law as well as a new focus on non-legal but nevertheless extremely important issues which come up time and again in family law proceedings. Because family law deals essentially with dispute resolution within families (dissolution of marriages, property settlement, custody of children), there are usually unresolved emotional issues which also need to be addressed. Until now, the judicial system has not been fully equipped to deal with such extra-legal issues. With the establishment of the Family Court and its new procedure, problems of families in conflict will be addressed in a new and dynamic way. It is proposed that the following will serve as a guide for those who wish to access the Family Court and make use of the services which it provides.

Where is the Family Court?

The Family Court is located at 4 Cipriani Boulevard, Port of Spain. There is only one Family Court in Trinidad and Tobago and it is hoped that this project once successful will eventually deal with all of the Family law matters which engage the attention of the existing Courts.

When do I need to go to the Family Court?

If you are experiencing conflict within your family in relation to your marriage or your children it may be time to consider the options available to you.
You do not have to be married to your partner in order to go to the Family Court. If you have been living together in a common law union, you can seek assistance from the court. Also, if your spouse or partner has died and you need assistance in relation to matters of inheritance, you can seek assistance from the Court. If you have issues with regard to the custody or maintenance, neglect or abuse of children you can also go to the Family Court. The family Court can also deal with matters of adoption of children as well as the granting of paternity orders. Finally, and by no means least, if you are the victim of domestic violence you need to go to the Family Court where you will be able to seek legal assistance as well as counselling for you and your family. You may wish to seek legal advice from an attorney-at-law to review your position and determine how best to resolve your problem through the Family Court.

What if I canít afford an attorney-at-law?

If you cannot afford to retain an attorney-at-law the Family Court has established a team of intake officers who will assist you. When you arrive at the Family Court you can ask to see an intake officer. This officer, who is the first person that you will meet will listen to the matters that are concerning you and will decide, after the discussion with you, which service provided by the Court is best suited to your needs. The intake officer will direct you to the person or unit at the Court which will be able to offer the most help to you.

What type of services does the Family Court offer?

While you are meeting with the intake officer, there is a childrenís waiting room which is fitted with toys and activities to keep your children busy while you are receiving attention from the staff at the Family Court. There is also a youth waiting room for older children and young persons who may be waiting for their parents or waiting for counselling sessions, as the case may be. With your children safe and supervised, you may then be directed, depending on the nature of your problem to the Courtís probation service or mediation service or family counselling service. These services operate in conjunction with the judicial services of the Court to solve the problem facing the family in a holistic manner and not just by a legal solution.

The intake officer may refer you to a probation officer, who is a specially trained social worker who will monitor the situation in your family and then prepare a report for the Court based on his/her findings. The intake officer can also refer you and your spouse to mediation where a trained mediator will sit with the parties involved and in an impartial way discuss the issues in contention between the parties and will try to arrive at an agreement which is acceptable to both parties. There is also the option of family counseling which the intake officer may suggest as a mode of helping you address the problems which you face as well as give you the courage to make the decisions which you want to make but of which you have been afraid.

What if mediation and counselling cannot solve my problem?

Sometimes, your problem may be one where an agreement cannot be reached. It may be that you have already decided that you wish to have the marriage ended or it may be that the violence which you have experienced has made you reluctant to return to your partner. After speaking with the intake officer, an assessment will be made and you may need to file a court application. Once that application is filed your matter will be determined by a judge or a magistrate of the Family Court.

What will the judge or magistrate do?

The judges and magistrates of the Family Court are very experienced in the area of family law and have received special training in order to help them effectively deal with the issues that face families in conflict. The judge or magistrate has the power to determine the issues before him/her and also has the power to direct you to mediation or social services. After the session(s) a report will be given to the judge or magistrate to assist in the determination of your matter. Once directed, you should arrange your mediation or social services appointment and make certain that you attend. If you and your partner cannot reach an agreement through the said mediation or social services provided by the Family Court the matters on which you cannot agree will go back to a judge or a magistrate for determination.

The matters which concern you and your family are important to you and to the Court and for that reason it is your responsibility to attend Court when you have an appointment and also to be on time for any appointments set up by the Court for you. The well trained staff at the Court will try its best to assist you but the first step must be made by you. The Family Court is ready and willing to serve you, please feel free to visit.

(The Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago)

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Dealing with families in conflict
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