How Family Court Differs From Civil and Criminal Courts

Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP

In the US, there are three primary forms of law that apply to the average private individual: criminal, civil, and family law. These laws can overlap, but they have significant differences that have led to the development of specialized courts designated for each. 

The differences between courts can be significant. Suppose you are most familiar with the proceedings of civil or criminal court. In that case, you may need to update your expectations for family court before you proceed with any family law matters. This article discusses the purpose and structure of civil and criminal courts, how family courts differ, and what you should expect from your family law case should it include litigation. 

The Purpose of Criminal and Civil Courts

Civil and criminal court is intended to resolve disputes between people or between a person and the state. They are dedicated to determining whether defendants acted in violation of laws or contracts and, if so, how they should be penalized.

Criminal law is focused on determining whether a plaintiff is guilty of a crime and determining penalties for the accused. Because these cases involve the state exercising power against other parties and may jeopardize the freedom of the accused, criminal courts can involve intense scrutiny and public attention. 

For example, in a criminal case, the defendant has the right to request a jury of their peers to hear their case. Furthermore, the defendant must be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If proven guilty, they face legal penalties from fines to imprisonment. 

Civil courts operate differently. Instead of the state taking action against alleged wrongdoers, an individual or organization can file a claim against another party. Civil law covers various topics, from business contract disputes to personal injury claims. The purpose of these claims is to allow a party who has had their rights under law or contract violated to pursue compensation for their losses from the party that wronged them. 

In most cases, civil courts do not have jury trials, though they may still be requested. Civil courts do still determine whether a party has wronged someone else, though. Because there is no risk of a restriction of freedom, these courts operate under a lower burden of proof. They require the plaintiff to demonstrate through a preponderance of the evidence that they have been wronged and that the defendant is liable. 

The Purpose of Family Court

Family law is significantly different from criminal or most civil law. In most cases, family court matters are not focused on determining fault. Instead, they are intended to preserve and respect the rights of all people involved in complicated legal issues, such as divorces and child custody. They may also determine whether contracts are fair and how they should be fulfilled. 

There is rarely any consideration of penalization within these courts. While one party may be unhappy with a judge’s ruling, divorce decrees and child custody orders are not intended as punishments. They are designed to give all parties fair outcomes during disputes between family members. For example, being ordered to pay child support or losing custody of a child is not a punishment to the parent; it is an order intended to support the child’s best interests. 

Family court also does not include the use of juries in any situation because these matters do not include the determination of wrongdoing or assignment of penalties. Instead, the judge hearing the case will consider both parties’ arguments and evidence, then issue a ruling. 

Finally, in California, family court is unique because the participants can choose to hire a private judge instead litigate a matter in a public court. Private judges are intended to lighten the load of public courts by providing an alternative judicial setting. Should all parties agree, they can hire a private judge to resolve their disputes in a more private location without the scheduling complications involved in public courts. 

Understanding the Family Court Process

There are many types of family law cases. You may need to bring matters before a family court if you have disputes regarding the following:

  • Dividing assets in a divorce, legal separation, or dissolution of a domestic partnership
  • Petitioning for a spousal or child support order
  • Formalizing a parenting plan through a child custody order
  • Altering existing custody or support orders

In some cases, you may also need to go to family court to request a restraining order, such as if your parent, child, or partner is abusing you. 

Because of the range of topics handled by these courts, the process can vary significantly. However, the basic structure of a family law case often takes the following shape:

  • One party files a petition in the court with jurisdiction and notifies the other party. 
  • Once the recipient acknowledges the petition, the court initiates the proceedings.
  • The parties may opt to work together to draft documents such as a divorce settlement or parenting plan and present them to the court. If so, the court will typically accept the documents and use them as the foundation for the legally binding court order.
  • If the parties have a dispute they cannot resolve on their own, they may hire a private judge or schedule a hearing in a public court.
  • The parties and their attorneys will present their arguments at the hearing. The judge will then deliberate before issuing a judgment on the matter. 
  • Once all hearings are complete, the rulings will be collected into a final, binding court order, such as a divorce decree or child custody order. 

Resolve Family Law Concern With Compassionate Legal Guidance

At the end of the day, divorces and child custody disputes are still legal proceedings. If you have a matter that may require going before a court, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced family law attorney. At Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP, we specialize in family law. We are prepared to assist you with divorce, property division, and child custody disputes before public or private judges. Discover how expert legal guidance can make a difference in your case by scheduling your consultation with our expert attorneys today.

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