Court can be an unnerving place – full of unknowns and uneasiness. It is natural for folks to feel a bit anxious. Afterall, going to court is not an everyday occurrence, and not knowing what to expect would make anyone nervous, especially when the issues are as personal as those we see in Domestic Relations Court.
We know that when you’re dealing with family matters, it’s important to feel that your perspective is completely understood, and each situation is handled with the utmost care. That’s why I’m particularly pleased to share with you a new program that aims to make the court process a bit more comfortable. It’s called the Neutral Evaluation Program, and it allows people to be heard in a court-like setting without the time and expense of a trial.
Basically, Neutral Evaluation is an opportunity to present your side, and in return, gain an understanding of how the court may realistically rule if the case goes to trial. This allows for a more informed view moving forward, which provides a better foundation from which to make decisions.
So how does it work, and who exactly is hearing both sides? Well, during this innovative form of dispute resolution, both parties present their side to a two-person panel. This panel includes a magistrate from the court that is not the magistrate that would hear the case if it goes to trial. The other panel member is a professional pertinent to the case. For example, if the case involves parental responsibilities (like custody or parenting time), the other panel member is usually a mental health professional that can address what is in the best interest of the minor child. If there is a financial issue (like property division or spousal support), the other panel member is usually a financial expert, and so on. It’s important to the court, and to those involved, that the process not be cookie-cutter, meaning the panel should not be the same for every case, but instead should reflect expertise helpful to each unique matter.
In Neutral Evaluation, each person shares their concerns, uninterrupted, for up to 15 minutes. Afterward, each attorney is permitted five additional minutes to present any other information and/or summarize their client’s position. If a Guardian ad Litem is on the case representing the children’s best interests, they may also present and provide recommendations.
After the panel has heard from both sides, panel members may ask questions. Once all relevant information is shared, panel members have a private discussion to identify and evaluate key points that would impact likely outcomes if the case were to go to trial. This evaluation, and the non-binding recommendations of the panel, are then shared with those involved. Now that the parties have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the case and its likely outcome, they can make informed decisions about how to move forward.
What happens next? Well, that depends solely on the parties involved. After the evaluation, participants are advised to speak with their attorneys (if represented) to discuss the evaluation. They are then asked to try and settle the case through mediation. If participants are willing, mediation begins. If participants are not willing, Neutral Evaluation ends. Whatever the outcome, the choice is made by the parties involved because they are now empowered to make decisions based on concrete, realistic information.
At the end of the day, it is all about finding solutions. It’s about helping families navigate a tough time in the most respectful and thorough way possible. Family disputes tug at the heartstrings, create a unique kind of stress, and can be particularly difficult on children, so it is important to create court programs to be as helpful as possible.
In Domestic Relations Court, we are committed to helping families resolve disputes and find the very best solutions for all involved. We can only do that if we are listening. That’s why, for all our programs (Neutral Evaluation included), we strive to provide a space where people feel heard. We believe all parties should feel their perspective is important to the court. When people are heard, they are more likely to feel understood and respected. They are more likely to be receptive to hearing the other person’s perspective, and because they have a say in what’s going to happen next, they are more invested in the process and more willing to consider solutions that are acceptable for both parties.
Randall D. Fuller is judge of the Domestic Relations Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. Judge Fuller is a life-long resident of Delaware County.