Monday, October 5, 2009
Family Law Task Force Backs More Use of Live Testimony
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A proposal to expand the right to present live testimony in family law proceedings highlighted a series of recommendations released Friday by the state courts task force charged with recommending changes in family law procedures.
“Live testimony enhances the court’s ability to make critical determinations regarding credibility when written declarations submitted to the court contain conflicting facts and hearsay statements,” the Elkins Family Law Task Force said in a draft.
The task force is seeking public comment on more than 100 recommendations between now and Dec. 4 and is slated to release a final report next year. It will hold public hearings in San Francisco and Los Angeles later this year.
In a statement released through the Administrative Office of the Courts, the task force said adoption of the recommendations would “increase access to justice for family law litigants, ensure fairness and due process, and provide for more effective and consistent family law rules, policies, and procedures.”
Under the proposal, litigants would have the right to present live testimony at any family law hearing absent a stipulation or a judicial finding of good cause for dispensing with it. Such a finding could only be made on a case-by-case basis, and the reasons for the finding would have to be made on the record.
The task force also recommended a rules change requiring that, absent a similar finding of good cause, all long-cause hearings and trials continue from day to day until completed, contrary to the practice in many courts of trying family law cases in spurts.
Members also urged a series of measures designed to improve the education, training, experience level and working conditions of family law judicial officers. Among those were a proposal to require two years of judicial experience prior to assignment to family law in larger courts; a benchmark, adjustable to local circumstances, of having 20 percent of all judicial officers handle family law cases; and encouraging family law attorneys to apply for judicial appointments, including by changing the application “to highlight the qualifications, characteristics, and experience that are important for family law judges.”
The panel also backed mandatory judicial education in a number of specific subject areas, including the appropriate use of minors’ counsel and the standards for awarding attorney fees based on need at an early stage of the process.
The panel also called for:
•Use of case management techniques, including discovery and motion cutoff dates, similar to those used in civil cases generally;
•New standards to determine when minors will testify in chambers;
•A ban on courtroom-specific, or “local local” rules;
•Development of a uniform “request for order” form that would replace the current “order to show cause” and “notice of motion” forms, except in matters, such as contempt, in which an OSC is mandated by statute;
•Improved discovery, including enhanced requirements for disclosure of information without the need for a request and at an early stage of litigation;
•Discretion for judicial officers to impose monetary and other sanctions for perjury;
•A uniform default and uncontested judgments process;
•A “family law research agenda,” including improved collection of statistics on a statewide basis;
•Improved community outreach, including an exploration of the feasibility of holding court at night or on weekends, or during extended hours.
“We are at a critical phase in our work,” Court of Appeal Justice Laurie D. Zelon of this district’s Div. Seven, the task force chair, said in a statement. “We need to hear from all interested stakeholders about these draft recommendations, and we are open to your thoughts and ideas.”
The AOC said that comments may be submitted by mail, fax, or e-mail.
The mailing address is Elkins Family Law Task Force, Administrative Office of the Courts, 455 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco CA 94102. The fax number is (415) 865-7217.
The public hearings will be held on Oct. 22 in San Francisco and on Oct. 27 in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles hearing will take place at the Ronald Reagan State Building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The draft recommendations and an online comment form, and information on how to sign up to speak at the public hearings, are available at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/jc/tflists/elkins.htm.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company