When Jean Berkley, a Marlow Heights mother of four, wanted to place her 16-year-old son in a state-supervised program for problem youths, she had to take him before the juvenile division of the Prince George's Circuit Court.
Mrs. Berkley was later charged with contempt of court in another division of the Circuit Court when she failed to pay a sum of money to the state required for the care of her son. Though a judge cancelled her debt to the state, Mrs. Berkley said she would have liked the chance to inform the judge that she had not made the payments because her estranged husband was not giving the family enough financial support. But to argue the support matters, Mrs. Berkley had to appear before a different judge in the county's lower division court, the District Court.
Just such a fragmentation in the way Maryland courts are set up to deal with family-related legal matters has led to the creation of a family division within the Prince George's Circuit Court. The division, which opened recently, is the first in any Maryland Circuit Court.
If the project proves successful in Prince George's, the Maryland judiciary will probably ask the state legislature to make a family division mandatory in each of the state's circuit courts, according to Judge Ernest Loveless Jr., chief of the Prince George's Circuit Court.
According to Loveless, the creation of a family division will not drastically change the way family-related cases are now handled in the court system. Juvenile matters and domestic relations cases for the most part will continue to be heard by masters - court officers who hear the cases, then make recommendations for action to the judges, who in turn make the final ruling in a particular case. Criminal non-support actions and domestic assaults will still be handled in the district court.
The difference is that the final rulings in family-related cases will be made by either of two judges assigned to the family court. The judges are James H. Taylor and Robert Woods of the circuit court.
"What we're doing is taken the many caterogies of family-related matters and letting just two judges focus in on them," Woods explained.
Although the new family division in no way minimizes the work now done by the masters, Judge Loveless said he believes the creation of the division may mark the first step in phasing out the use of masters in juvenile cases.
The trend in Maryland courts, Loveless said, seems to be toward prosecuting the juvenile offender, particularly the juvenile delinquent, in the say way in adult would be prosecuted.
Judge Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland, recommended phasing out the juvenile master system over a four-year-period in a "State of the Judiciary" message he gave before the General Assembly in January. The masters, Murphy said, should be replaced by more circuit court judges.
"There is general agreement that the juvenile master system must be abolished, not because the masters have not in the main performed their responsibilities in a dedicated and capable manner, but rather because the system is now outmoded, inefficient and symbolic of second-class status for disposing of juvenile cases," Murphy said.
The family court will cost about $87,000 for the first year and is being financed with mostly federal funds, and with some money from the state and county.
In 1975-76, the Circuit Court handled 9,774 family-related cases. An estimated 11,748 cases will be filed in the current year.