Family Court: What to Expect

Mar 3, 2009

Going to court can be a stressful experience for anyone, but it can be especially trying for people dealing with the emotionally charged issues of divorce and child custody.  It may help reduce the stress if you’re aware of what you can expect from the different types of events held in the courtroom.

In many counties, several different cases will be scheduled for the same time.  The short and easy hearings will probably be heard first.  During this time, you and your attorney may make a final effort to work through any disagreements with the other side.  Keep in mind that the judge is not making you wait because your case is not important.  By taking the least complex cases first, the judge can use everyone’s time more efficiently.  In some counties, such as Hennepin County, you will be scheduled for a specific time, and your case will likely be the only case there.

Many people have the misconception that it is easy to “just let the judge decide.”  However, our judicial system prefers for the parties to work out the disagreements themselves and litigants must follow certain procedures and take certain steps before the judge will decide anything.  A judge only makes substantive decisions after a trial or a motion hearing.  Less than 3% of cases will actually go to trial.  And before you can go to trial, there are other court hearings you must attend.   

In some counties, your first courtroom experience will be an Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC).  An ICMC is an informal, “off the record” hearing.  During this hearing, attorneys for both parties will explain to the judges what they have agreed upon, and what is still being argued.  The attorneys will then discuss what process will be used to reach additional agreements or gather additional information (mediation, Early Neutral Evaluations, custody evaluations, asset valuations, discovery, etc. )  The judge can then issue an order regarding the process to be used and containing the agreements so that they are binding to both parties.  Hennepin County was the first county to institute the ICMC program and all Hennepin County cases will have an ICMC.  Other counties are slowly following suit, the ICMC is now used by some judges in Anoka and Ramsey counties.     

For cases that do not have an ICMC, a scheduling conference will be the first thing on the court’s calendar.  A scheduling conference is just that, a chance to figure out the schedule for the case – how much time will be needed before the parties are ready for trial and what will be done prior to trial (custody evaluation, discovery, mediation, etc.).  Many times attorneys will work together to submit a Stipulated Scheduling Order so that nobody actually needs to go to court for the scheduling conference.   

The next step is a Pre-Trial Conference.  At this conference, both parties and their attorneys will meet and talk about any agreements or disagreements.  Expect this conference to take a large portion of your day, because most judges will expect everyone to be there for a few hours.  The agreements can be added to the record and made official.  If there are any disagreements at the end of the conference, then a timeline for the trial will be discussed.  

If after the Pre-Trial Conference you still have not reached a complete agreement, your case will then be headed to trial.  Attorney Jason Brown’s Minnesota Divorce & Family Law Blog offers this article to help prepare you, in the event that your case goes to trial.  The most important thing to note from this article is that a divorce or child custody trial is nothing like watching an episode of Law and Order or Boston Legal.  Courtrooms on television are crafted to maximize the drama of legal proceedings.  Real courts are designed to deal with real people.  A family law trial is unlikely to include any dramatic twists, surprise witnesses, or tearful confessions.  And really, that’s more comforting to imagine, isn’t it? 

You can rely on your lawyer’s knowledge of the process to guide you through each stage of the process in the event that your case has to go to court.  It still may be a nerve-wracking experience, but remember that your lawyer is there to be guide you through the process and be your advocate.  You should never hesitate to ask your attorney any questions that you have about your case, the legal process, or how to proceed.  It is his or her job to keep you well informed that you can make the best possible legal decisions for your family.