Friday, May 30, 2008
C.A. Justice Zelon to Head Task Force on Family Law Rules
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Justice Laurie Zelon of this district’s Court of Appeal, Div. Seven, will chair the Judicial Council Task Force charged with proposing new family law rules, the Administrative Office of the Courts said yesterday.
The Elkins Family Law Task Force was created in response to the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Elkins v. Superior Court, (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1337, authored by Chief Justice Ronald M. George.
Elkins involved a challenge to certain Contra Costa Superior Court rules aimed at expediting family law trials—now superseded in part by new rules—which made declarations admissible at trial in place of direct examination, prohibited direct examination except in “unusual circumstances,” and required the parties to establish the admissibility of all exhibits they sought to introduce at trial in their pretrial declarations.
Jeffrey Elkins, a self-represented litigant in a divorce proceeding had nearly all of his exhibits excluded as sanctions for failing to comply with the court rules. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after the Court of Appeal summarily denied his writ petition.
The high court struck down the Contra Costa rules as contrary to the Evidence Code provisions governing hearsay and setting forth procedures to be followed prior to trial. “Marital dissolution trials proceed under the same general rules of procedure that govern other civil trials,” the chief justice concluded.
In dicta, George suggested that a task force be created to study and propose measures to improve family law proceedings and recommend changes to the statewide rules of practice and procedure.
Zelon could not be reached yesterday for comment. In a statement, she acknowledged the dramatic increase of self-represented parties in family law cases over recent years “adds complexity to the issues,” but said it “also creates an opportunity for innovation and new approaches.
George told the MetNews that the court was aware that unrepresented litigants were having a difficult time presenting their cases, and that the court was concerned enough about this issue to propose that the system be improved all around.
“I’ve characterized the number of people who are unrepresented…as perhaps the most pressing challenge courts will be facing in the next decade,” he said. Family law courts are bearing the brunt of this challenge, and he estimated in some parts of the state, as many as 80 to 90 percent of the litigants in family law matters have no counsel.
He said that the Administrative Office of the Court created the task force he had called for in Elkins to create “rules that are written in a way that lay persons can follow them and that are easy to comply with,” and focus on how to “preserve and increase access to justice” while still having cases handled as “quickly and fairly as possible” in the “overburdened family law courts.”
Third District Court of Appeal Justice Vance W. Raye told the MetNews that he was pleased to be appointed to the task force. He opined that access to justice is “particularly important in family law because family courts are the places, other than traffic court, where people are most likely to access and become involved [in the court system].”
Another appointee, Woodland Hills attorney Peter M. Walzer, said the family law courts are “straining under the many, many self represented individuals in the court system.”
Walzer said he sees many people going “outside the system” to private judges because they do not think they are getting due process in the courts. He said this creates a situation where the rich have an alternate form of justice and leaving everyone else in the “regular” system that lacks the time and resources to let litigants have their cases heard.
Los Angeles attorney and task force appointee Lawrence E. Leone lamented that under the current family law court procedures, litigants are only offered “due process-light.” He said that “family law litigants have been howling loud and clear for years that they just don’t have the same rights as other people.”
It is a “sad testimony” to the judicial system that family law litigants have fewer constitutional rights than people fighting traffic tickets, he opined. “If someone slips and falls, they can have a three week trial,” he said “In family law, it’s not going to happen.”
Leone suggested that the creation of the task force would provide much-needed “synergy” between members of the legal community about “how to respond to the Supreme Court’s clear indication that we can’t go on this way.”
Fellow appointee Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark A. Juhas echoed Leone’s sentiments, opining that the task force would permit courts to “all learn from each other as to how was can best use court time and court resources to serve the families that need our help.”
Other members of the task force include Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Joan K. Irion; Orange Superior Court Presiding Judge Nancy Wieben Stock; Neighborhood Legal Service of Los Angeles County Supervising Attorney Ana Maria Garcia; Los Angeles Superior Court Senior Family Law and Probate Administrator Margaret Little; Newport Beach attorney Mark E. Minyard, and other appellate court justices, judges, commissioners, public interest and private attorneys, representatives from the Senate Judiciary Committee and state Assembly Judiciary Committee, and court administrators from around the state.
The first general meeting of the task force will take place on June 23rd and 24th in San Francisco. The task force invites members of the legal community to contact it by email at Elkinstaskforce@jud.ca.gov.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company