DOVER — A task force studying access to Family Court proceedings voted Tuesday to recommend opening some that are currently closed to the public.
Task force members are recommending that divorce, alimony and property division proceedings be presumed open — meaning such hearings would generally be open to the public unless the court determines there is a good reason for barring the public. They also voted to recommend that child custody and visitation hearings be presumed open, while barring minor children involved from listening to the testimony.
On the other hand, task force members agreed that adoption proceedings should remain closed to the public.
Tuesday’s meeting was the second held by the task force, which faces a February deadline to submit its report to lawmakers. Another meeting will be held in December.
The Family Court has jurisdiction over all domestic relations, juvenile delinquency and intra-family misdemeanors.
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.
The resolution passed by lawmakers earlier this year to establish the task force says the integrity of the Family Court process could be enhanced by opening court proceedings.
Bonnie Corwin, who told panel members Tuesday of her own experience with Family Court in a divorce case, said she believes the current closed-door system has bred “an environment of corruption.”
“I think if there was an open court ... the judges would straighten up,” she said.
Ms. Corwin said she also believes that opening divorce proceedings would allow people who are interested in representing themselves to learn how the process works.
“They would have an education on the spot, not through a book,” said Ms. Corwin, who represented herself.
Chandlee Kuhn, chief judge of the Family Court, said Family Court participants’ safety should be a priority for the task force, along with clarity on what the new rules would be and how they would be applied.
Judge Kuhn and other panel members also noted that opening more Family Court proceedings would require more work to determine which, if any, records related to those proceedings should be open.
“We have a potential of an extraordinary burden on staff,” Judge Kuhn said.
Some task force members suggested that opening Family Court records could pose safety risks for participants in cases or lead to identity theft, although other courts in Delaware, both state and federal, routinely deal with questions about personal or confidential information contained in court records. In such cases, a judge can order that certain information be sealed or redacted while still allowing access to court records.
Panel members agreed that they would focus for the time being on openness of court proceedings and address the issue of court records later.
Panel members also wrestled with the idea of recommending that certain proceedings be presumed open while allowing judges the discretion to close them to the public, including if both sides agree to keep the public out.