Family Court Systems in Harris County

You may have had the experience of being in Family Court or know someone who has. In Harris County, Texas we have nine specialized courts that are dedicated to family cases, or “anti-family” cases if you consider that the large volume of their docket is devoted to divorce cases. We have also added a new specialized court in 2009 dedicated to Civil Family Violence Protective Orders. This is not to be confused with the Criminal Court issuing a protective order when there has been an arrest for family violence. The Criminal Court orders are also called “Magistrate Protective Orders” which is a term often used when the alleged offender gets a bond to be released after the arrest. These Magistrate Orders are not handled in the Family Courts. The Civil Family Court Judge has no authority over the Criminal Court Judge, and would not even attempt to undermine the work done in the Criminal Courts.

Not to stray too far from my original statement, I reiterate the reason I say you might have had the experience of being in Family Court or know someone who has, is because of the sheer number of new cases filed every year. In each of the nine exclusive family courts, over 6500 new civil cases, including divorces, modifications of parent-child issues, parentage (paternity) and adoptions are filed each year. There are also a growing number of Harris County Child and Adult Protective Services (CPS) cases that also get pulled into these courts. This is due to the fact that these courts have some basis to see the parents before the court and therefore “attract” the jurisdiction of the CPS case as well. With this in mind, chances are pretty good that these courts will affect you or someone you know sooner or later.

The Family Courts operate under civil statutes that have been “codified”. That means all drawn together in a single book called the “Texas Family Code”. The Family Code, like most legislation, continues to grow over the years. Before the family code was created in the1960’s, lawyers, clients, and judges would find themselves searching many volumes of many different sections of the general statutes to find the answer to an individual family law question. The original code was small enough to swat a fly without much effort, but the present code is now approaching a physical weight lifting workout. You can find much of the Texas Family Code online, but understanding the code is much more difficult to navigate than the Internet to locate it. It is an interesting area of the law with no limit to challenges.

There are limitless emotional, financial and expertise complications when dealing with any family legal matter. The broad discretion that the individual judge wields can make a litigant or party before the court feel absolutely powerless. The emotional complications and investments probably require no explanation. When we say that something hits us hard we often use the expression that “it was close to home”. A family court can: (a) take away your family by granting a divorce, ceasing access to spouse and children or changing custody; (b) take away your property through orders to sell, divide or award same to your spouse; (c) take away your money by ordering you to pay support or awarding your assets to another spouse; and (d) in some cases take away your freedom by jailing you for non-payment of child support. In some limited cases, conduct contrary to a Court Order can put you in jail for your actions or inactions.

Does that remind you of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? Well welcome to Family Court. This experience is not limited to just those people “who deserve it”. You can live right and try to marry well, but in the State of Texas, it only takes one spouse to call it quits and file for divorce for the process to begin and ultimately end. The juvenile courts are full of the product of bad marriages and divorces. The Criminal Courts are full of the same influences. We should never take the Court system for granted, but know who and what they are. We have an elected Judiciary in Texas. On occasion, when there is a gubernatorial appointment to fill a vacancy, that “Judge” must stand for the next election along with any opponents. In Family Courts (the nine we spoke of) we also have a full time associate Judge assigned (hired) by each of the elected Judges for their respective court. We also enjoy the benefit of special masters or temporary associate judges that are assigned by the Judges. They assist the Court for reasons ranging from covering dockets and cases when a Judge or associate Judge will be absent, to special issues that may be so complex or be so time intensive as to jeopardize other time sensitive cases on the docket to the detrement of all. The next time you hear the term “family court” maybe you will feel you know how they fit in the big scheme of things.

 

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