California Family Courts deal with a huge volume of traffic every year. Just the Los Angeles Superior Court — Family Law handles 100,000 filings per year.
The high number of filings combined with the fact that over 70 percent of litigants in family law are unrepresented — meaning they don’t have an attorney — many courts have adopted local rules and procedures in an attempt to more efficiently process the high volume of family law cases.
While some of these rules and procedures help speed up the process, the price that efficiency comes at was the virtual elimination of live testimony in most family courts.
The California Supreme Court found, in its landmark 2007 decision, Elkins v. Superior Court, that such procedures deprive family law litigants of due process protections.
Due process is the name given to the minimum “process” necessary to allow litigants to have a full and fair hearing of their issue.
Because of the complexity of Family Court procedures, many parties who chose to represent themselves in their divorce or other family law proceedings make errors that negatively affect their outcome of their case.
In Elkins, the California Supreme Court, while sympathizing with the overworked family courts, noted the stakes in a family court case:
But family law litigants should not be subjected to second-class status or deprived of access to justice. It is at least as important that courts employ fair proceedings when the stakes involve a judgment providing for custody in the best interest of a child and governing a parent's future involvement in his or her child's life, dividing all of a family's assets, or determining levels of spousal and child support.
Access to justice requires that parties be able to appropriately address the court and present their cases.
AB 939 and AB 1050
The California Legislature responded to the Elkins case by passing Assembly Bills 939 and 1050. AB 939 ensures that parties in family courts will have the opportunity to testify in their case. AB 1050 requires that courts allow children age 14 and older to testify in cases affecting their custody or visitation.
Both acts by the legislature seem reasonable, and in view of the Elkins decision, required. But they both will come with a price.
The effect of allowing more testimony in family court cases will be delay. The courts will have to allow more time for every case. Absent the legislature significantly increasing funding for the family courts, schedules will stretch farther out and cases will take even longer to compete. With the budget crises affecting California, however, it seems very unlikely the courts will receive any additional money.
If you are considering divorce, an experienced family law attorney can help you minimize the time it will take to obtain a dissolution judgment.