After nearly 20 years practicing as a New Jersey Divorce Lawyer, I have been asked this question many, many times. My standard answer is that, due to the inevitable emotions involved, many cases are drawn out until one or both parties settle down (pun intended). However, as a member of the Middlesex County Judiciary Committee in New Jersey since 2000, I understand that other counties in this state are inefficient and unorganized. Let’s explore further.
This controversial issue was first addressed in April 1996. The Supreme Court of New Jersey realized that the family part of the Superior Court of New Jersey was tedious and inefficient. Thus, the Special Committee on Matrimonial Litigation was created. The committee was comprised of judges, practicing attorneys, and even non-attorneys. The Court intended to include all members involved in the legal process, especially non-attorneys because they were, after all, the ones picking up the tab.
The Committee started out small; however, by the end of the year it had expanded its member base so that it could review more areas of the law. The primary areas that the Committee focused on were case processing, legal fees, motions, and custody issues. From 1996-1998, the Committee held four primary public hearings. At each of these, judges, lawyers, and non-lawyers provided feedback on each of the controversial practice areas. Their testimony was then compiled into a committee report to be presented to the New Jersey Supreme Court upon completion.
After the four long hearings and revisions upon revisions, the final committee report was drafted. It revealed that, “a common theme that resounded throughout much of the testimony was that the process of divorce took too long and cost too much. A further theme was that the system could be improved were various procedural initiatives to be undertaken and were a greater commitment of resources to be made to assure the prompt resolution of matrimonial matters” (Supreme Court of New Jersey, Special Committee on Matrimonial Litigation, Final Report, February 4, 1998). The final committee report also looked to judges as a reason why the family part of the legal system seemed tainted. It noted that “the demands and stress that Family Part judges must accept make understandable why the Family Part experiences so much judicial turnover. While relatively few judges represent the core of the Family Part serving for as many as ten or more years, the Family Party service of most rarely exceeds three years” (Supreme Court of New Jersey, Special Committee on Matrimonial Litigation, Final Report, February 4, 1998).
In the final report presented to the Supreme Court, the Committee had a long list of recommendations for improving the Family Part of the legal system. They meticulously addressed each of the issues the Family Part was experiencing and laid the foundation for modifications to the New Jersey Rules. In 1999, the recommendations became effective and were thereafter called “Best Practices.” The name “best practices” was chosen to reflect that the Supreme Court would only endorse the best practices possible in order to revamp the Family Part of the legal system.
The first major noteworthy change was that the court began to award attorney’s fees, something it had commonly strayed away from. Furthermore, New Jersey formally adopted statewide procedure, which replaced each county’s local procedure. This proved to be a more efficient and uniform way to handle family law cases throughout the state. Moreover, the divorce process on a whole became easier. The idea of an uncontested divorce surfaced, one in which the parties had settled and agreed upon key issues, such as equitable distribution and child custody, prior to meeting with their lawyers.
Yet, one of the most impactful improvements to the Family Part of the legal system was a decreased desire to enter the court system instantaneously. Instead of lawyers filing complaints for divorce decrees right away, they began to settle matters more informally amongst themselves. In particular, lawyers would exchange case information sheets with one another and discuss their plans of attack. In a way, it was as if lawyers themselves had developed personal differentiated case management skills without the court having to get involved.
Although the “Best Practices” brought significant change to the Family Part of the legal system in New Jersey, are they enough? While there will always be criticism in every profession, an increased amount of criticism is beginning to resurface regarding this issue once again. Some feel that the divorce process takes even longer today, but is this something that the Court can control? Or is it due to financial turmoil, leading to increased disputes among divorcing couples? These are questions that the New Jersey Supreme Court is encountering, yet whether it will revamp the Family Part once again is left unknown for now.
At the Law Office of Edward R. Weinstein, we will continue to research this essential issue and provide insight in the weeks and months to come. Thank you.