How to Avoid Bias in California Family Courts

January 24, 2012, by

Given the high divorce rate in this country, just about all of us have been impacted in some way by divorce and custody/support matters. Perhaps it was our own family or parents or our own divorce, or simply a very close friend or family member. And with few exceptions, a majority of folks in these situations feel they lost too much or paid too much, received too little, or had a custody/visitation order that was "unfair" to them, and worse. 
Based on these experiences, we develop opinions and biases about how such matters should be handled. And of course, every judicial officer, as well as recommending Family Court Services mediators and custody evaluators, have their own personal biases. Consequently, the reality is that the same exact case may have very different results in different court rooms.

This is not to disparage family court judges who deal with complex issues (permanent removal of children to another state, custody, visitation, domestic abuse, determining real income, valuing assets (eg, closely held businesses) on a daily basis, with honor and integrity. But the inherent bias based on one's experiences in many cases cannot help but bias the judge's factual findings, their discretion, and how they decide to apply the law. This bias probably exists more in family law than in other areas. No amount of bias elimination training can make a judge forget about their life experiences, assumptions, personal beliefs/views and biases. Consequently, family law litigation can be unfair and inequitable.

However, most judges it is hoped, exercise enough self awareness to check in with their personal biases before making a ruling. And it is important to note that mediators and Collaborative professionals are no less immune to being impacted by personal experience as judges and others in the court system. We too are human beings with biases and must guard against forming opinions based on them. However, we are not judging and making orders, rather our role to facilitate a full and constructive dialogue between the parties that will enable them to reach their own agreement, so our biases have less impact. And ethical and conscientious mediators are very aware of the potential for bias and work hard to be neutral and unbiased.

Alternative dispute resolution processes, however, such as mediation or Collaborative Divorce allow you to fashion your own outcome instead of having a stranger (judge) decide your future and that of your children. Mediators and Collaborative attorneys do not decide - they help you make your own decisions. And furthermore, why pay the always substantial legal fees incurred in litigation, when a much less expensive process means those funds could instead be used to pay for your child's college education. More often than not, litigation usually means going through the court process, several hearings, perhaps settlement or case conferences until, worn down by the conflict and fast becoming broke, you settle anyway. Why not focus on resolution (settlement) from the outset rather than pretending you're going to go to trial and then settling anyway but only after wasting tens of thousands of dollars to get there. And last ditch, in front of the courthouse door settlements are almost always hasty, last minute agreements, rather than the well thought out and thoroughly discussed agreements generally produced in out of court processes.

I recently had of a case where the litigators managed to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees before the clients decided to try mediation. It was readily apparent that the husband was willing to give the wife more than her lawyer would likely have obtained through litigation. And both clients felt that their attorneys would not be reasonable unless the retainer was used up and either no more money was available or the client refused to replenish the retainer account. All in all, a tragic waste of emotional and financial resources for nothing. The mediation, however, was positive, constructive and successful.

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