The most useless purchase of 2019 – a 2020 Planner.
The doors to justice remain open in Pima County Family Court. You can still file a petition for divorce, legal separation, parenting time, support orders, or Orders of Protection. That’s the easy part. Exiting with a Court Order in hand? Not so much.
Unlike other places, family court here is not like the song “Hotel California”, where you can check in, but never check out. But do prepare for an extended stay. Family Court has done a superb job. Exhibiting dexterity and phenomenal leadership, it is resolving cases while protecting courthouse staff and visitors. The entire courthouse successfully pivoted to an entirely new delivery model within a few weeks. It offers a fully electronic application process for most protective orders, expanded access to court forms, virtual mediations for kids’ issues through the Conciliation Court, virtual appointments with volunteer attorneys who can provide early, free, and impartial case evaluations, virtual parent education classes, telephonic mediation services and special pandemic parenting guidelines. Now that is a full throttle response!
Still, the pandemic has put a heavy foot on the brake pedal. Get prepared for shortened hearings and – sometimes – longer delays between filing and final resolution.
What has changed?
- Triage: Family Court has been forced to triage. Essential hearings go to the front of the line. For non-essential hearing, get ready to wait. Essential hearings include Orders of Protection and emergency support and parenting issues. Non-essential hearings include final trials, child support modification or enforcement, motions to modify parenting plans, temporary orders and post-decree enforcement of parenting time/legal decision-making/support, among others.
- Technology rules: Most hearings are by phone or secure video, at least through September 30, 2020. Masks, temperature checks and other safety precautions apply to all court house visitors.
- Time limits: Compared to the good old days before March 2020, most hearings are shorter – with the presumptive maximum being three hours– unless you prefer to wait in line for a longer hearing.
The good news is that Pima County has a free robust mediation program staffed by attorney volunteers. In addition, there are several sitting judges who are devoting prodigious amounts of time to settlement. Alternatively, if you need more time or special expertise, you could pay for private mediation. A good bet is to ask your favorite family law attorney for a referral or search for a certified family law specialist on line. Go to Find a Lawyer: State Bar of Arizona, and under “Board Certified Specialist” select “Family Law”. The bonus is that successful mediation allows you on the spot results: You can put the settlement “on the record” and be immediately bound.
You can bypass court hearings altogether by agreeing to private arbitration. This way you can choose an expert who has special expertise with your issues. An arbitrator, unlike a mediator, can make binding rulings. An arbitrator can also fast track your hearing and rule quickly. Arbitrators charge. However, you should weigh that against the cost of a delayed court resolution.
Unless there is a no-contact order between you and your ex, you must at least try to settle before a hearing. Letters or emails will not suffice. You have to make meaningful efforts personally or by phone. The court can sanction you for non-compliance.
- Break your issues into bite-sized pieces: Most people can find common ground somewhere. But if a few big troublesome issues are the roadblock, consider asking for a hearing on just those issues. This frequently paves the way to settlement of the rest by agreement or a more time and cost-effective process.
- Instead of a hearing, let the judge rule based only on written arguments. This approach is especially useful if you can agree on the facts, but not the law Even where facts are disputed, you can submit in writing your respective versions of the evidence. This is called a “trial by avowal”. The downside is that you may want to convince the judge in your own voice that you are the one to be believed. Bear in mind, however, that most hearings are by phone, so the Court will not actually see you anyhow.
- Partial settlements: If full settlement is impossible because of the uncertainty wreaked by COVID on your business or future income, consider partial settlement. Resolve as much as you can now and reserve issues for later that are contingent on future events. It’s a process called “reserved future jurisdiction”. This way you can still obtain a Court order or divorce decree, but avoid unfair prejudice due to changed circumstances later.
Focus on the big picture and be flexible. Understand your options and set realistic goals. If you want to be done with a lot less effort, anxiety and expense, don’t be afraid to leave a little bit of money on the table. You may have ditched your planner, but you can take control!
Stay updated on Pima County Family Court changes at their COVID-19 update page.
Message from The McCarthy Law Firm
If you need assistance navigating any aspect of Family Court including Juvenile Court, the McCarthy Law Firm has the expertise to handle it. With eight family law lawyers in our Firm, we have the ability to quickly respond to your every family law need. Please call us at 520-623-0341 to explore your options. Turning Stress Into Solutions ™.