The utilization of permanent masters in family law matters began in Northampton County in 1978 when the first master was appointed to assist the Court in child custody and juvenile matters. During 2007, the family law masters' cases totaled 2,003.
Juvenile matters are concerned with delinquent and dependent youth under the age of 18. A delinquent child is one who has committed a crime and a dependent child is one without proper parental care and control. Since the position of Juvenile Master was established, the duties have evolved, necessitating the master to hear almost all dependency matters, half of all detention hearings, and a small number of minor misdemeanor delinquency hearings. All other Juvenile Court matters continue to be heard by a Common Pleas Judge. There were a total of 948 juvenile cases in 2007.
Child Custody Masters
In child custody cases, the master holds settlement conferences for the purpose of encouraging and supervising the formulation of agreements between the parties. The Custody Master is authorized to enter an agreed Order of Court for later signature by a judge. These cases may involve legal custody of children, physical custody, partial custody, visitation, grandparents' visitation, shared custody, modification of custody and contempt proceedings. When the master cannot bring about a settlement, the case is placed upon the next available Court list to be heard by a Judge. The master settles the vast majority of such cases. A total of 936 custody cases were processed in 2007.
Standing Divorce Masters
With the appointment of two masters in 1988, the emphasis has remained upon achieving a settlement. The first stage before the divorce master is a conciliation stage. During 2007, there were 119 divorce cases submitted to a standing divorce master.