There is a commonly held perception that hiring a Private Judge to handle a marital dissolution case is something that only the wealthy do. Though there are additional costs incurred in using a Private Judge for Marital Dissolution proceedings, these costs are more than offset by other kinds of cash savings, which can be substantial.
What is a “Private Judge?”
A “Private Judge” is an attorney who meets specific legal qualifications and experience and who is appointed by the parties (by agreement). A Temporary Judge/Private Judge generally has the same responsibilities, authority, and roles as those of the full time Superior Court Judge.
Hiring a Private Judge and Scope of Authority
The appointment of a Private Judge begins by a mutual agreement of the parties which is memorialized in a written Stipulation. The parties will agree on the scope of authority of the private judge, meaning what areas of the case the Private Judge will make decisions upon. A Private Judge can be an all purpose Judge handing all issues, or the parties can agree to limit the scope to particular issues, such as property division, support, child custody etc.
The Role of a Private Judge
A Private Judge’s ultimate role is to be a trial judge or finder of fact over disputed issues. If a matter does proceed to contested trial with a Private Judge, it will proceed in a manner identical to a trial in the Superior Court, with witness and expert testimony, documents, rules of evidence etc. except that the setting may be somewhat less formal (and therefore less intimidating, as they are often done in a conference room at the Private Judge’s office).
However, over and above that, and well prior to trial, a Private Judge can provide neutral, third party input on probable solutions and can be instrumental in settling cases short of trial through the case management and settlement conferences.
Costs and Cost Savings
Typically, Private Judges charge an hourly rate with the costs shared equally by both parties. The ultimate cost depends on how many hours are consumed and how long the case takes to come to a resolution. However, the cost of a Private Judge is more than off-set by the cost-saving and other associated benefits.
Litigating contested cases in the Superior Court can be extremely expensive and very time consuming (which in turns lead to more expense). Because of busy calendars and overrun dockets, a family law trial may actually occur over a series of days or half days spread out over weeks or months and possibly years. Nearly every attorney has experienced a trial that involves one day in May, another day in June and so on. With each interrupted day, additional costs are incurred through duplicative preparation, delays etc.
Even motion issues, which are disputed issues that are typically handled in under 30 minutes, are done more cost efficiently with Private Judges. In the Superior Court a motion involves substantial briefing back and forth in the 30 days prior to the hearing. On the day of the hearing, the parties may wait around for up to 2 hours or more to have their case heard. Often the Court will run out of time and make them come back at a later date, or after 20 minutes of hearing, determine that more time is needed and make the parties come back for a second hearing. Even if the matter is heard that day, a decision may not be rendered for weeks or months given the heavy caseload that California Judges work under.
With a Private Judge, a time slot is reserved for your case. The matter is briefed in an agreed upon fashion and the briefs are fully reviewed. Often brief are shorter and less fact oriented as the Private Judge is typically very familiar with both the law and the facts. The hearing will take place at the scheduled time with little or no waiting around. Private Judges can also engage in a teleconferences or informal hearings that often negate the need for formal hearings.
Time Savings and Other Benefits
Family Law Private Judges are typically former Family Law attorneys who are experts in the field of Family Law and are able to evaluate the facts of a case quickly and either resolve the dispute or craft out an equitable resolution. That is not always the case with Superior Court Judges, who often move from department to department every few years (i.e. Criminal to Civil to Family).
While Superior Court Judges have extremely large case loads such that litigants often find their Judge does not remember all the details or history of their case (and may need to be repeatedly reminded of what happened previously), due to smaller case loads and more frequent case management, a Private Judge is almost always very familiar with the parties, the facts and the history and can get through the case quickly and can render decisions much sooner.
Many litigants who have been in both Superior Court and Private Judging also prefer the privacy and what some have called “more dignified” benefits in Private Judging. For example, few of the pleadings or letters ever find their way in the Superior Court file which is accessible to the public. In Superior Court cases almost everything ends up in the court file. It can also be less stressful and more calming and ultimately more “private” to have their case handled in a Private Judge’s office conference room rather than in Superior Court courtroom in from the entire courtroom staff, and tens if not hundreds of other litigants and spectators in the courtroom whom they don’t know.
If you have a family law matter and are interested in learning how using a Private Judge can assist you in resolving your issues, please contact the experienced Family Law attorneys at Lonich Patton Ehrlich Policastri for further information. Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results. While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice. Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.