I've had the opportunity, albeit not by choice, to spend a few days at family court over the past six months. Family court, I was told by one lawyer who has spent the last 25 years in that area of his profession, is also known as "Liar's Court." The reason It's called this is very simple: Almost everyone lies. They lie for various reasons. For personal gain, mostly, and sometimes out of a genuine concern for the welfare of the children involved.
In a perfect world, the mission of family court is to ensure that any agreement between the parents is in the best interest of the children. This, of course, would be a difficult task were everyone being forthright and honest, but when most everyone is playing fast and loose with the truth, it becomes a near impossibility.
What I witnessed most commonly was the old "he said/she said" routine. In most cases, this was all there was. Neither party had any evidence to present, so they made false claims about each other, which left the judge to decide who was lying least (or maybe who was lying better?) This was usually how it went. There were instances where one party or the other did have evidence that had been filed with the court. In those rare instances, the judge still proceeded as if it were a case of "he said, she said" and largely ignored any evidence in favor of hearing arguments.
There are many problems in the family court system and they vary in degree and severity, sometimes particular to the state or county in question, but from what I've witnessed, read, and been told, the level of dishonesty displayed by the parties and their lawyers in family court is consistent and pervasive.
One of the reasons Liar's Court exists, even in that most important area of family law, is the backlog most courts experience on an ongoing basis, especially those in large metropolitan areas. The backlog is so extreme that no judge could possibly familiarize him or herself thoroughly with each file given the daily barrage of cases they're inundated with. This leave the judge with little recourse but to ask the parties to tell their stories and hope that he can find the truth in the statements made.
That means that, regardless of the evidence filed in the case, once the parties arrive in court they only need to be able to tell a convincing story and their evidence may or may not receive a proper review. Many, many tactics are used to try to sway the judge towards one side or the other under these circumstances, and it's a virtual free-for-all of dishonesty, but the big trick happens before the couple arrives in court with their respective lawyers. That is, getting the case to court in the first place. (This is especially important if you happen to have no case to begin with.)
- Engage the other party's lawyer in conversation about the case in an effort to demonstrate attempted negotiations, but don't actually negotiate. Keep making the same offer even if the other party is willing to compromise. Remember, the goal isn't to settle, but to get the case in front of a judge. These sham negotiations are necessary in the event that the judge asks if any settlement negotiations were attempted. A really clever lawyer will find a way to accuse the other lawyer of being unwilling to negotiate.
- File as much paperwork with the court as possible. Don't worry about redundancy or lack of veracity in the filing. No one will read any of it. The goal here is to make the file so thick and unwieldy that the judge will not have time to review it (or at least not think he has time) and he will believe that the case is extremely complicated. This will also serve to dissuade him or her from asking whether negotiations were held.
- Keep the couple from talking to each other. God forbid they should come to an agreement before going to court. Whatever it takes, make sure they fear and distrust each other. This will keep two people from talking surer than anything else.
- Prepare arguments in anticipation of the judge's questions on the matter, knowing full well that the documents you've filed haven't been read by him/her or anyone else. Then spin, spin, spin, spin until the web of the story is so complicated and personally heartfelt that your client looks like Gandhi and theirs is the picture of Satan himself.
- Collect handsome reward. Win or lose, getting a case before a judge that should have been settled out of court is a big payday regardless of the outcome.
No matter what your lawyer tells you, it's likely not in your best interest or that of your children. If you find a lawyer who advises you that you'll do better with a judge than settling the matter with your former spouse, get a second opinion. Then get a third. When you find a lawyer who advises you to work out a settlement outside the court system, hire that person That's your Jerry Maguire. (For those of you who don't remember or haven't seen the film, Jerry Maguire was a sports agent who set out to end corruption and dishonesty in his profession single-handedly. Laughter ensues.) He/she may be a cockeyed optimist, but is also one you can likely trust.
Please let me know what you think in the comments section below. My experience with writing about this subject matter in the past tells me that many lawyers will have lots to say about what I've written here, much of it surprisingly uncomplimentary. My answer to their most frequently asked question is: "No, I don't think you're the whole problem, but I do believe you are integral to the problem and have it in your power to affect it in a positive way."