Family court works to keep family together
A family is ripped apart by divorce. Who gets to settle the aches and pains of the separation? Family court.
With two new family law commissioners sworn in June 7, El Dorado County is poised to make a number of improvements to the system that include mandatory settlement conferences and a unified family court system.
South Lake Tahoe Superior Court Commissioner William H. Bradley organized a conference in August and September with lawyers acting as pro-tem judges. Each conference evaluated two to three cases, and, according to Bradley, settled about 75 percent of the cases.
The lawyers involved volunteer their services.
“El Dorado County Bar Association is spending time at no cost to try and save people time and money,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity to sit down and resolve the case without the trauma of a court proceeding and spending a lot of money. In family law, we’re talking about divorce, property, pension plans, custody. Those are the issues we’re dealing with in this particular setting.”
Bradley also plans to institute a new family court system at South Lake Tahoe, one that will hopefully group separate family issues together so that one judge can decide all matters concerning the family.
Suzanne Kingsbury, presiding judge of El Dorado County, initiated the project.
“Fortunately Judge Kingsbury has taken the bull by the horns and said let’s get moving on it,” Bradley said. “You’ve got families with a lot of different issues, a lot of different courts, a lot of different judges. We want to consolidate their cases for one court judge. We’re trying to find out what the problem is with the family.”
Bradley said several counties and states around the country have implemented such a program and that he plans to learn from their experience. If things go well, family courts in Placerville may also change their system.
“It’s a pilot project at the lake with Commissioner Bradley,” El Dorado County Courts Executive Officer Alex Aikman said. “We’re starting it at the lake because it’s a little bit more manageable in terms of the case load.”
Seeking to make the family courts more efficient, Kingsbury also initiated in April the creation of Family Law Select Committee. In June, the 15-member committee, composed of judges, attorneys and two members of the public, among other people, accepted written statements from residents of El Dorado County concerning what improvements could be made. The committee then interviewed 17 of the 40 people who made submissions.
With the information gathered, the committee broke into three subcommittees to study the statements.
El Dorado County Judge Thomas A. Smith, vice chairman of the committee, reported that people voiced concern regarding the performance of the judges and commissioners and complained of bias in the court system. Smith said many argued that lawyers purposefully dragged out the legal process to increase the fees they could charge.
Wednesday the committee regrouped. Smith said the main issue of contention was whether or not all of El Dorado County should allow family law mediators to make recommendations to the judge. Placerville allows mediators to make such recommendations. South Lake Tahoe does not.
“I can tell you emphatically that Commissioner Dwyer and I want recommendations,” Bradley said. “I think it’s one of the most important issues since I got here. That’s going be done. We are waiting on a final recommendation from the Family Law Committee.”
Smith said a majority of the committee Wednesday approved a move to allow all mediators in El Dorado County to make recommendations to a judge, but a subcommittee did not approve. A final report is expected to be submitted to Kingsbury soon.
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