Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Justices Reject Local Rule Aimed at Expediting Family Law Trials
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Contra Costa Superior Court rules aimed at expediting family law trials are contrary to state law and unenforceable, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
“[W]e reach this conclusion because, pursuant to state law, marital dissolution trials proceed under the same general rules of procedure that govern other civil trials,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.
The rules and standard pretrial order struck down by the court—which have been recently superseded in part by new rules—made declarations admissible at trial in place of direct examination, which was not permitted in the absence of “unusual circumstances,” and required the parties to establish in their pretrial declarations the admissibility of all exhibits they sought to introduce at trial.
The rules were challenged by Jeffrey Elkins, a self-represented litigant in a divorce proceeding in which his wife had counsel, after nearly all of his exhibits were excluded as sanctions for failing to comply with the court’s requirements. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after the Court of Appeal summarily denied his writ petition.
Sympathy for Court
While expressing sympathy for the court’s efforts to deal with the high volume of family law cases, George said the appellate courts will not hesitate to strike down local rules where “a local court has advanced the goals of efficiency and conservation of judicial resources by adopting procedures that deviated from those established by statute, thereby impairing the countervailing interests of litigants as well as the interest of the public in being afforded access to justice, resolution of a controversy on the merits, and a fair proceeding.”
The Contra Costa procedures, the chief justice said, are contrary to the Evidence Code provisions governing hearsay and setting forth procedures to be followed prior to trial.
George distinguished cases allowing procedures similar to those challenged with regard to family law motions. Where the resolution of contested issues of fact will result in a judgment, the chief justice emphasized, the rules of family law are no different from those applicable to other civil matters.
“Courts must earn the public trust,” he wrote. “...We fear that respondent’s rule and order had the opposite effect despite the court’s best intentions.”
In a footnote, George suggested that the Judicial Council establish a task force to study how to balance the need for efficiency in family law courts with the need for fairness to litigants.
The opinion was signed by all members of the court except Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, who wrote in a concurring opinion that the majority, while reaching the correct result, was unnecessarily wandering into issues of policy best addressed by the Judicial Council or the Legislature.
Amicus briefs criticizing the rules were submitted by a number of family law and local bar groups, including the Los Angeles County Bar Association and its family law section, as well as retired Court of Appeal Justices Donald King and Sheila Prell Sonenshine and retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Denner.
The case is Elkins v. Superior Court (Elkins), 07 S.O.S. 4910.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company