Every year, tens of thousands of California families need the assistance of the legal system to resolve disputes. These disputes are managed by the California family court system. This system is distinct from criminal and civil courts, though some cases overlap and require input from two or all three types of courts.
If you are preparing to appear in court for a family law matter, you should understand how the process differs from other legal hearings you may have attended. The structure of family law hearings is significantly different from criminal and civil trials, especially if you bring your case before a temporary or “private” judge instead of going through your county court system. These factors will shape the outcome of your case.
The Structure of Family Court Hearings
Unlike civil or criminal proceedings, family law hearings do not include juries. The parties present include the judge, the disputing parties, such as a divorcing couple, and the parties’ legal representation. All court proceedings are open to the public, unless the judge elects to close the courtroom or seal the case, so there may also be observers, however, these observers do not impact the outcome of the hearing.
During a hearing or trial, the judge hears both parties’ arguments, observes the presentation of evidence and testimony, and then decides the matter according to California’s laws and judicial guidelines. For example, family law cases involving children are supposed to be resolved according to the child’s best interest. This may take a few minutes in simple cases, or it may take hours or even multiple hearings over several days for complex issues.
If a family law case involves multiple issues, the judge may decide each issue during separatehearings. When a case is concluded, a Judgment is entered. The Judgment may incorporate orders that were made at prior hearings or trials, and/or issues resolved by agreement of the parties, and may include subjects ranging from the dissolution of the couple’s marriage to the division of assets to how child custody and support will be awarded.
The Difference Between Private Judges and Public Judges
California family law is unique in that it does not require families who need a judge’s assistance to go through the public court system. Instead, California allows private judges, also known as “judge pro tems” or temporary judges, who are granted the authority to hear and resolve family law cases in the same capacity as public judges.
Private judges are typically legal experts who have retired from positions as public judges or attorneys. This experience grants them the knowledge and abilities necessary to resolve disputes with the same skill as their public counterparts. They follow the same laws, guidelines, precedents, and hearing structures when hearing a case. The rulings they issue are legally binding and equivalent to the decision of a public judge.
The difference is that because they are unaffiliated with a courthouse, private judges are not automatically assigned cases according to their availability, as occurs in the public court. Instead, judge pro tems control their own schedules and can choose how many cases to take on.
How Hearings Differ Depending on Your Judge
When deciding between private judges vs. public judges, it is worthwhile to consider how each may affect the issues in your case. The primary differences include the following:
Timing and Delays
Private judges were first permitted in California because of the high demand on the public court system. Depending on your county, it may take months to schedule a hearing in a public court. It may take years to resolve a case if multiple hearings are necessary or if hearings must be rescheduled.
Private judges do not face the same overwhelming caseload as their public counterparts. They often restrict themselves to presiding over a handful of cases at a time, allowing them to schedule hearings with significantly less delay. This permits them to resolve matters quickly and efficiently.
You are not charged for a public judge’s time. While you must submit filing fees and pay your attorneys, the judge is a government official and paid by the state. In contrast, judge pro tems are self-employed or part of private firms and charge for their time. While hiring one can increase costs initially, in complex cases, it may lead to lower overall expenses by allowing you to resolve matters more quickly, reducing the overall amount spent on legal representation.
If your case is heard in public court, you will likely need to attend the hearing in-person at the county courthouse. Some California courts permit certain hearings to take place over videoconferencing software, but not all of them permit it. In contrast, private judges may hear cases anywhere. As long as the hearing may be open to the public and all involved parties consent, it can occur in facilities such as conference rooms, the judge’s office, or even by videoconference.
Most cases heard by a judge are considered matters of public record by default, regardless of whether they are heard by a public or private judge. This means that they are to be stored in the county court records, available for anyone to access. An important exception are Parentage cases, which are confidential and only accessible to the parties named in the cases and/or their attorney(s) of record.
However, according to the California Rules of Court, Rule 2.400(c), should “the parties file, and the court approves, a written stipulation providing for a different disposition of the exhibits,” records of cases heard by private judges may be stored by the judge. They must still be available during business hours for inspection by any person; however, by holding them outside the county court records, families receive an additional measure of privacy.
Proven Legal Counsel for California Family Court Hearings
At Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP, our attorneys are highly experienced in representing clients before both public and private judges. Learn more about how we can assist you with your family law matter by scheduling your consultation today.