Judge Nilon discusses family court with law students
To an outsider, the courtroom may resemble a three-ring circus. Various set of lawyers stand around discussing multiple cases in front of one judge.
This is the Unified Family Court (UFC), which places litigants with multiple cases in front of the same judge. Judge James P. Nilon, of Alachua County’s 8th Circuit, spoke Friday about his experience heading the UFC in Alachua County, which he did until recently switching to criminal court.
“The idea is one family, one judge,” Nilon said. “It’s a pretty simple idea, but it’s hard to apply.”
Unified Family Court is required by Florida’s Supreme Court in all 20 of Florida’s judicial circuits, Nilon said. However, there is no standard way UFC is operated because the Supreme Court wanted it to be different depending on the location it serves, Nilon said.
“Why is unified family court important? Probably if you’re going to be in family court, every circuit in the state is supposed to have some form of unified family court,” Nilon said. “The bad news for all of you is no two versions of unified family court will look the same.”
Nilon said UFC should theoretically cover criminal cases as well as the family cases, but logistics usually prevent that from happening. He gave an example of a typical multi-issue UFC case in Alachua County.
“Let’s take a good old-fashioned domestic violence battery – dad is accused of battering mom, he’s been arrested so he has a criminal case, she’s now filed for an injunction, so there’s now an injunction case, and because it’s happened so many times in the past, there’s been a dependency shelter and there’s a dependency case,” Nilon said. “That’s how one incident can lead to all of these things.”
Nilon said the main case in UFC was usually a dependency issue, which he tried to work out first. Nilon often dealt with that first and kept temporary injunctions in place for some time for people to realize how much the cases were going to change their lives before possibly granting permanent injunctions.
Nilon said UFC’s goal is to clear things up for clients who might otherwise be confused if they had separate judges.
“Theoretically, if you have three different judges for all these things, one thing that can really be difficult is you’re going to get three different orders,” Nilon said. “The contact provisions in the three different orders might all be different, so even for me, if I was on the receiving end of this, I’m confused. Which one am I supposed to abide by because they’re all different?”