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Changes sought in state's law master system

by James Fisher


(September 17) A senior state family law master recently told legislators that a commission studying changes to the state's court system needs to also consider changing the law master system. Harrison County's family law administrator, however, says the system works fine locally.

"We are very lucky here in Harrison County to have such a good working relationship with the county government," M. Drew Crislip said.

Overcrowded, technologically inadequate facilities and a lack of bailiffs for safety present problems for family law masters, Anita Ashley, the law master who handles cases in Roane, Jackson and Calhoun counties, told the state Legislature.

She called for several changes in the system, including revisions to the child support formula and the presumption that a child's primary caretaker be given preference in custody hearings.

The Commission on the Future of the West Virginia Judicial System, chaired by West Virginia University president David Hardesty, will meet Sept. 24 to debate legislative recommendations. A final vote is expected Nov. 12 and the final report deadline is Dec. 1.

Crislip said he does not have problems with safety and the law master system basically works well in Harrison County, but "there is always room for improvement," he said.

His office is located directly above the circuit court judges' chambers, so finding bailiffs isn't an issue. Crislip also said his office and courtroom are "very adequate."

Law masters in some smaller counties do not have permanent offices and must make do with what is available, Crislip said. That creates security problems, he said.

He said he did believe family law masters' salaries should be increased, and also that all law masters should be full-time. Crislip said full-time law masters were not permitted to have side practices and were paid $50,000 per year. Part-time law masters, which are permitted side practices, are paid $37,500.

Family law masters are responsible for all hearings pertaining to divorce, custody and paternity, as well as all modifications for those rulings.

"It's difficult to do this job part-time and do anything else," he said. "All of the law masters across the state need to be full-time."

Among the proposals to be debated by the commission are several pertaining to the family law masters. One such proposal is to do away with the current system and replace it with a family court system. The major difference would be the issuance of final rulings, Crislip said.

"We cannot make final rulings," Crislip said. "We make recommendations to the circuit judges who then weigh any objections and issue the final rulings."

Crislip said another option before the commission is to retain the current jurisdiction of the family law master, but expand the type of cases heard. Under the expanded system, law masters would assume jurisdiction over adoptions, domestic violence, abuse and neglect cases and juvenile justice.

Aside from the salary issue, Crislip said the backlog in the cases seems to be the biggest problem he faces right now, although sometimes the backlog can actually prove to be beneficial. He said opposing parties often need a "cooling-off period," which the backlog can provide.

He said many of the proposals before the commission are dependent upon the passage of a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature expanded powers to change the judicial system.

"I think it's safe to say there will be some changes," he said. "There is always room for improvement, but the system does work well."