Your Day in Family Court May Not Be What You Expect

sand-glass-1308598Reading a recent blog post from the UNC School of Government reminded me that people frequently have misconceptions about what their day in family court will accomplish for them. The post discusses legal authority for a judge’s ability to limit the length of your day in court. Within certain broad parameters, a family court judge has the authority to limit the type and amount of evidence provided, and the length of the hearing or trial. That is an issue in family law because many family law courts in North Carolina place limits on the length of hearings. Some courts limit temporary custody, child support and spousal support hearings to two hours or less. Conventional wisdom among many family lawyers is that the result of a temporary hearing will frequently be carried over to the permanent hearing. So, it is entirely possible that your custody, child support or spousal support matter will be effectively decided based on a two-hour hearing. That means that each side gets one hour to present evidence. Any lawyer can tell you that an hour of evidence is not much (even for the fast talking lawyers). Further, that leaves precious little time for you to do what many people want to do in court; namely, tell their whole story to the judge and explain in detail each insult, misdeed, cross word and other hardship that the opposing party has brought into their life. Given these time limits, a courtroom is not a place for you to tell your story and seek affirmation from the court. Rather, it is a place that is interested in an efficient and streamlined presentation of cold, hard evidence. Courts are not interested in hurt feelings, revisiting past relational problems, laying blame for the demise of a marriage or hearing about the hurtful, but largely (legally) irrelevant “back and forth” of spouses or parents who no longer get along. Courts and judges simply have too much to do to concern themselves with tangential and legally irrelevant information. As a result, you may well leave the courtroom feeling stunned that you were not allowed to talk about things that seemed crucial to you, that you were given so little time to talk, that nobody seemed to care about things that were so hurtful to you or how little time there was to respond to something that that the other side said or implied about you as a person and parent. If telling your story to someone, addressing matters that may be important for reasons that would not come into play in court, and having a process that is willing to hear all of your concerns is important to you, then you may want to consider an alternative process. Collaborative divorce and to a lesser extent, mediation, are designed to give clients room to voice all of their concerns, not just issues that would be relevant in court. And, these alternative dispute resolution processes do not impose artificial time limits that courts are forced to impose. No process is perfect, and without some focus on the ultimate goal of resolution, no case would ever end. But, some processes are designed to address more of your concerns than others. Before you choose court, collaborative divorce or another process for your divorce, give some thought to whether your day in court will accomplish what you hope, and in which process you are more likely to be heard.

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