Several years ago, Mr. Elkins was getting a divorce in Contra Costa County – he ran into a buzz saw when he showed up for trial. Much to his surprise, the judge essentially wouldn't let him present a case because he hadn't followed local court rules – mainly, he hadn't reduced all the testimony he wanted to present into declaration form. Those rules were specifically designed to eliminate trials in Family Law matters in that county. San Diego is what is known as a Reifler County – pursuant to a California court case in the Marriage of Reifler, on a county by county basis, courts have been allowed to use declarations in lieu of oral testimony in family law cases – it's clearly faster and more convenient, and in the vast majority of cases justice is done by that process – if you want oral testimony, there is a procedure to follow, but the judge has discretion not to allow it. For trials, however, San Diego has always required oral testimony. In theory, the Elkins decision had no impact on San Diego divorce cases. Unfortunately, for most litigants it isn't that easy. After Elkins, an "Elkins Task Force" was created to solve all the problems in the family law courts. [Insert smiley face here] They ran with the ball and have managed to make a major upheaval by permitting testimony in all hearings as a matter of right, and allowing children to testify in their parents' divorce. These changes, part in force now and part in 2012, are going to make family law cases much more expensive and much more complicated. Rather than increasing justice, they will deprive more people of their ability to effectively present their cases. In the best of times, divorce courts have been the poor stepchild of the law – the worst court rooms, an insufficient number of judges, and judges poorly trained in the subject matter. The high volume quickly too its toll on the best of judges, let alone those with no prior family law experience. Because of the high volume of cases assigned to each judge, the emotions attendant to the decisions, the number of substantive decisions that need to be made in each case, and the effect on families of mistakes, burn out among judges often comes quickly. Where are the judges going to come from to handle the increased work load required by so much oral testimony? Certainly not from the judges who have the seniority to balk if assigned to a family law department. Where it may take two to four months to get a hearing on a one hour matter before the new changes in the law, what will happen if it takes twice as long to get a hearing because the judge is busy hearing hour after hour of senseless testimony? Increasing chaos, less justice, and higher cost overall.
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