Few Changes Eyed for Delaware Family Court Access - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Few Changes Eyed for Delaware Family Court Access

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DOVER, Del. (AP) - A task force studying the feasibility of opening Delaware Family Court civil proceedings to the public is making only minor recommendations for greater transparency in a report to be submitted to lawmakers.

Delaware's constitution says all courts shall be open, but many Family Court proceedings are nevertheless closed to the public because of laws passed by the General Assembly.

Those closed proceedings include hearings involving adoption, termination of parental rights, custody rights and visitation, guardianship, paternity and divorce.

After months of discussions, the task force is recommending in a report to be submitted to lawmakers next week that most of those proceedings continue to be "presumed closed."

The panel is recommending only that divorce and paternity proceedings be presumed open, rather than closed, while allowing judges wide latitude to close them based on various factors, including what the litigants think.

Similarly, the task force is recommending that judges should have the discretion to open proceedings that are presumably closed if, for instance, one of the parties wants to bring in an outside person for support.

Raetta McCall, a public member of the task force, expressed skepticism about allowing judges the ability to close proceedings that are presumed to be open if they believe circumstances warrant.

"They will keep it closed every time.... This puts it right back to where it was," she said.

But other panel members suggested that in such instances, the court likely would have to meet some burden to overcome the presumption of openness.

"We're going to have to write a decision as to why we're doing that subject to appellate review," said Family Court Judge Michael Newell.

One issue with which the task force struggled is how to consider and protect the interests and desires of children involved in Family Court proceedings. Panel members previously had voted to recommend that custody and visitation proceedings, which currently are presumed closed, be opened to the public. But that decision was reversed after receiving additional information and public input.

Mariann Kenville-Moore, co-chair of the task force, said some of the early votes may have been premature, and that they were more about "taking the temperature" of panel members on where they stood on access to various proceedings at the time.

Kenville-Moore said that more than half of the comments received by the task force favored continued privacy, while about 40 percent favored more openness.

Family Court Chief Judge Chandlee Kuhn told fellow task force members that the court must weigh the privacy and personal interests of litigants with public trust and confidence in the court.

"In all our decision making, we need to strike that balance," she said.
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