Most states, including North Carolina, have adopted the Best Interest of a Child standard to determine all issues affecting children including child custody, parenting plans, visitation, child support and decision-making. However, one factor missing from the court’s analysis is the overall impact of the court’s already crowded court docket or calendar.
The Cause of Crowded Court Dockets
In many jurisdictions, courts experience a backlog that prevents a child custody case from reaching the court in a reasonable amount of time. Some courts have witnessed a three-year trend in growing backlogs that have resulted in countless families waiting over a year for their day in court to determine a parenting or custody plan that is in the child’s best interest.
In some states, delays stem from a requirement that a family undergo an evaluation if anyone in the household has a criminal record. Other jurisdictions lack judicial resources and some judges lack experience in handling domestic relations or family law cases. Many jurisdictions divide judges between criminal, domestic relations and civil litigation dockets. While the multi-discipline approach allows a breadth of knowledge and expertise among the members of the bench it also appears to limit the ability of the court to handle an increased number of cases in a specific practice area.
No Real Signs of Relief Ahead
Regardless of the reason for growing delays in family law matters, especially contested custody battles, we don’t see any encouraging signs for improvement. Many jurisdictions have experienced an increase in the number of cases filed due to a slightly improving economy and lower rate of unemployment (i.e. folks can now afford to retain the lawyer to handle the divorce). The opposite is also true; pro se filings are on the rise, which lead to the court’s ongoing struggle with an increase in improper filings and an increase in contested hearings to resolve matters that could have been avoided by skilled negotiation and settlement. In a band aid style solution, one jurisdiction outside North Carolina simply reassigned three judges to family courts to hear custody cases. Of course, the real impact of the temporary fix is yet to be felt as other practice areas may be neglected or pushed off on other judges.
Crowded Dockets Lead to Other Issues
While courts continue to experience backlogs that impact the ability to conduct timely hearings to determine which parenting plan or orders best satisfy the best interests of a child, another danger may be created by rushing cases through the domestic relations gauntlet. Pushing a case through to a hearing may be detrimental to both parties. This is because it robs the parties of valuable opportunities to iron out a parenting plan that is in a child’s best interest. The full court press to push the case through the system actually results in clogging the system more. The court ends up taking its already limited resources to hear a case that could have resolved amicably (not only is it less expensive for the clients to work through a parenting plan with the help of their attorneys, the couple is more likely to follow a parenting plan that they help craft). Further, the court is more likely to conduct a modification hearing in the future because the parties do not like the parenting plan ordered by the court.
Mandatory Mediation in North Carolina Child Custody Cases
With some exceptions, parties in North Carolina cases involving a contested issue of child custody or visitation are required to attend mediation prior to a hearing in their matter. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.1(b). While mediating these issues sometimes resolves the case in a timely manner, the unresolved cases lose valuable time being scheduled on the crowded dockets discussed above.
How Long Will It Take for My Case to be Heard?
At the time of this post, at least one county where we practice is scheduling hearings on child custody some seven months from the date of the request. Practically speaking, this means that it may be at least eight to nine months from the date of filing an action for custody until the parties have an opportunity to be heard by a judge. This is because the case may not be placed on a court calendar until an opposing party has an opportunity to respond, and the parties have attended an unsuccessful mediation. For these reasons, it is increasingly desirable to attempt resolving child custody issues with the help of experienced attorneys and mediators, rather than waiting for a court to decide a case.
Contact an experienced North Carolina Family Lawyer at Lundell Law Firm for more information and to discuss a strategy for pursuing your child custody matter. You can reach an attorney by calling (704) 288-4096, or completing the contact form on this website. We offer flexible payments without compromising our level of service!