It is no secret that family law matters can take a long time to be brought to final resolution. There are many reasons for this. For example, the emotions of one or both parties can make it challenging to move forward; the parties and lawyers engage in gamesmanship by trying to use delay as a strategic advantage; the complexities of the family law court system take time to navigate; and the recent state budget crisis has led to significant strains on the courts including layoffs of court staff.
Down the Rabbit Hole
It is shocking, but the Report to the Judicial Council of October 28, 2011 concerning the delay in bringing family law cases to conclusion finds there are cases in the court system which have been lingering for 20 to 30 years and have not yet been brought to an end! It is conceivable that these are cases where the parties likely are not represented by lawyers. Even so, it is shocking the court system has allowed such cases to linger.
Starting January 1, 2012, the family court system is going to implement what is supposed to be an aggressive and often mandatory case management system. In family law we have had case management rules, but they required the agreement of the parties to participate in such a process. No more. Now the law will allow the judicial officer to impose case management as a means of bringing matters to a close.
The new case management statute will be referred to as “Family Centered Case Resolution” and will allow the court to manage cases from initial filing to final disposition. This new law will enable judicial officers to, among other things, communicate via telephone with attorneys about the status of cases, affirmatively inquire at the time of hearings about the status of the overall case, limit discovery and provide opportunities to help settle the financial aspects of the case with judicial officers or qualified attorney settlement officers. Judicial officers will require that certain procedural aspects of a divorce progress more rapidly, will inquire early and often about the progression of the case and will help move the case forward with aggressive orders, settlement opportunities and other tactics.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The intention of this new law is to bring family law matters to conclusion within 18 months of the initial filing. This might sound like a long time to someone not familiar with family law, but 18 months is reasonable. It does not prevent cases from being resolved sooner, and in fact the courts are hopeful that by 2014 cases will be disposed of within 6 to 12 months. We will see if such ambitious goals can be met, as we are still in an era of devastating budget cuts that affect the courts and their ability to handle an increasing case load.
Family law is late to the game. Civil and criminal courts have had similar case management rules for years but those court systems are not burdened with the same large number of unrepresented parties, extensive procedural requirements and emotions in each and every case. Family law desperately needs case management and it is welcomed. But because the system is more like an ocean liner than a speedboat, it will take time to turn it around.