Did COVID-19 lockdowns potentially reveal a better way to conduct family court?
Divorce and child custody issues don’t bring out the best in many parents, and it’s often the children who suffer the most as a result. Although instances of “incivility” in court were on the rise, an interesting side effect of the pandemic lockdowns reveals a potential way to increase cooperation among all parties.
The problems with incivility during divorce proceedings
Incivility is an informal term frequently used throughout the court system to describe any situation where one parent attempts to denigrate the other by portraying them as irresponsible or unfit. Common examples of this behavior include:
- Publishing salacious details about the person’s personal life
- Tracking their movements
- Accessing their online accounts
- Badmouthing them to children
Additionally, many finance-related issues can occur. One party might hide assets, spend money frivolously and excessively, underreport income, and otherwise try to keep money from the ex-spouse.
“Stories of disrespect and sabotage between divorcing parents are legendary,” said Attorney Jeanette Soltys from Atlanta Divorce Law Group. “Emotions run high, and some parents will try anything to help ensure they’re awarded custody of their kids.”
“Ultimately, these underhanded techniques rarely achieve the desired effect. Instead, your best course of action is working with a family law attorney to develop legal strategies based on honesty and responsibility.”
The impact of COVID on traditional courts
Starting in March 2020, state and federal courtrooms began to close. While some courtrooms reopened within weeks or months, others stayed shut much longer, with some remaining closed even today. Generally, courts across the country stayed open for serious felony cases but closed for misdemeanor, traffic, and family issues. For example, a trial date for a custody dispute in New York could take up to two years to become available.
Of course, family disputes did not disappear during the pandemic, and custody cases still needed resolution. Two alternatives to traditional court proceedings quickly grew in popularity:
- Private Judging
Private mediation provides binding, impartial arbitration to settle all manner of child custody and divorce issues. Scheduling mediation is often easier and faster than finding a traditional court date. Additionally, mediation naturally lends itself to both civility and pandemic-safe procedures.
First, mediation can occur entirely via teleconference, so the parties can avoid all in-person contact. Also, the opposing parties only meet together virtually once, during a brief introductory session. From then on, each party (virtually) communicates with the mediator one-on-one. During mediation, each party is allowed to explain their position. The mediator then attempts to develop an amicable compromise with the children’s best interests at the forefront of the decision-making process.
Private judging is another popular alternative to traditional courtroom proceedings. A private judge is a qualified judge not currently sitting in a court. They’re hired to hear and determine cases in accordance with established civil laws in the relevant state.
Private judging also lends itself well to online-only interactions. Even with courts closed, all parties involved can meet virtually, which means proceedings can begin far quicker than they would in an official trial.
Family court cases, especially ones involving child custody, have always involved intense emotions. However, the recent shift away from traditional hearings to online alternatives has revealed surprising benefits. A bit of virtual distance, as well as decreased communication directly between parties, seems to allow for cooler, less antagonistic interactions overall.
Even as courtrooms resume normal operations and scheduling, many divorcing couples will likely continue to seek out the benefits offered by mediation, private judging, and other online-based options.