Family Courts Project
The broad aims of this project are: to develop and provide psychotherapeutic services to, and to promote the overall emotional well-being of, litigants in the 11 Family Courts in the state of Maharashtra; to initiate research on the marital concerns of the litigants, and the counseling interventions currently offered by family court counselors in the state, in order to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of litigants’ needs and concerns, as well as to identify effective elements of the counseling process that would help to build a replicable model of effective intervention.
A background note
Family Courts in India were set up in 1984 to ensure the rapid settlement of marriage and family disputes. Currently, in Maharashtra, there are Family Courts in 11 districts, where the population exceeds 10,00,000.
Most commonly, cases registered in the Family Courts are related to marital discord, child custody, maintenance, and restitution of conjugal rights. Violence is one of the major stressors experienced by women litigants, who report different forms of violence – physical, psychological, economic, sexual. Many speak of having experienced abuse since the beginning of their marital lives. (Joshi, 2010). Urbanization and modernization have brought in a new range of concerns. Some of the newer issues reported by marriage counselors pertain to couples in live-in relationships, the use of technology, concerns related to partners’ sexuality, infertility, as well as substance abuse (Sriram & Duggal, 2015; Carson & Jain, 2009).
Couples come to the Family Courts to make important decisions about their marital relationships. This journey from private lives to a public space like a courtroom is not often easy. The legal issues dealt with at the courts have dense emotional and psychological undertones. It then becomes pertinent to have a space to deal with such issues, related as they are to mental health, stress, and well-being.
Maharashtra is one of the few Indian states with a provision for trained social workers to be appointed as counselors in the Family Courts. Most of these marriage counselors have postgraduate social work training, and past experience in the field of marital and family counseling. Despite the commonality in the legal processes involved, there is great variability in counseling processes and techniques – with counselors facing all sorts of hurdles while trying to provide adequate assistance: large caseloads cause them to be overburdened (as against the many thousands of cases that come up before each Family Court in the state, there are only 43 such counselors across Maharashtra); the lack of infrastructure; interference by other members of the judicial system; and the lack of a gender-sensitive framework, to name just a few of the reported problems. (EKTA, Study of Family Courts, 2008; Sriram & Duggal, 2015). Further, Family Court policy is to promote reconciliation, in tandem with larger social structures and mores – a stance that may not always be effective for couples grappling with serious issues, and that exacerbates the already existing pressure on them from family and community. Consequently, the work of marriage counselors often ends up being solely to facilitate litigation, and the focus shifts away from providing emotional support and promoting wellbeing.
There is, then, a clear need to establish counseling services in Family Courts that address issues of interpersonal conflict and emotional distress without shying away from questioning dominant notions, and that serve as a space where individuals and couples may safely explore their selves and relationships, and negotiate issues around power and gender.
Housed at TISS, Mumbai, the current Family Courts project is entirely funded by MHI.
A counseling center helmed by Ms Aparna Joshi for the Bapu Trust, a national level mental health organization, was active from 2005-10 at the Bandra Family Court. Unfortunately, this center was closed down as a result of changes in organizational policies – but it had paved the way for the work to be revived and carried forward. Ms Joshi restarted the project, with Dr Amrita Joshi, and counseling centers were inaugurated in April 2017 at the Thane and Bandra Family Courts.
Working as it does with a gender sensitive, rights-based, non-pathologizing, empowering and holistic approach, the project fits MHI’s mandate well. Counseling at these centers is free of cost, and provide within the court premises, making it more accessible to variously marginalized persons, while helping reduce the stigma around mental health concerns. Individuals and couples in distress are: provided a confidential and safe space to share stories of distress; facilitated towards amicable discussions and decisions around issues of marital conflict; helped to plan their future courses in life; connected to other psycho-social services when needed. The services are run in close partnership with the Family Court system, in that the system acknowledges the need for the services, and collaborates by providing resources and support.
The program uniquely blends a service delivery and research approach to emerge with a demonstrable and replicable model of counseling services in a legal setting that can be up-scaled in the future. The project also aims at working with the ecosystem of the courts and key stakeholders including judges and staff, to build their sensitivities and capacities.