Family Law 2020
This year the court has faced many challenges. However in Family Court, the challenges have created many opportunities. Technology is being utilized to hold remote hearings and mediation by Zoom. The court has implemented contactless means of filing domestic violence restraining orders and other family law requests. The court closure has allowed the family law building to be given a much needed face lift.
In an effort to keep staff, attorneys, and litigants safe, most family law hearings have shifted from in-person hearings to remote hearings held by Zoom. While there was a huge learning curve to using Zoom, all are becoming experts now. Breakout rooms and shared screens are becoming second nature to judges and attorneys. Family law hearings are even being reported through the use of court reporters present remotely on Zoom hearings. The court has been able to continue mediations remotely through the use of Zoom. Now litigants can safely mediate their custody issues without having to come to court.
Zoom hearings have been quite successful. The no-show rate has been reduced now that litigants can appear from home or work. Litigants and attorneys being able to appear from their homes or offices has reduced travel costs especially for out-of-state litigants and attorneys. More litigants are able to afford attorneys because of the reduced cost when hearings are held by Zoom. Providing remote mediations through Zoom has provided additional security for domestic violence victims. All of these factors have made the use of Zoom an efficient way to better serve the community in Contra Costa County.
While there are many, many positives about remote hearings through Zoom, there are still many challenges presented by having remote hearings. Sound quality and internet connection can be barriers to presenting your case to the judge and an even greater barrier to an accurate record. Self-represented litigants often do not know how to present exhibits to judges on the day of the remote hearing. The court has only been able to offer limited Tier II mediations due to access issues. As these unique challenges occur, courts continue to find innovative ways of solving the issues presented. Still these challenges create opportunities such as creating electronic exhibits delivered to the court through electronic means.
Ensuring that the court can provide much needed services to our most vulnerable litigants in the face of a global pandemic, the court has created an email account for filing requests for domestic violence restraining orders. The email account has created an expeditious, efficient, and remote means for domestic violence victims to request a restraining order. The court has also invested in a drop box stationed outside the family law building from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm so that litigants and attorneys can file documents safely by limiting contact with other individuals.
The court closure has enabled the family law lobby and the downstairs offices to be recarpeted. The new carpet looks fabulous. Now with hearings being conducted remotely and courtrooms empty, all the family law courtrooms, as well as the back clerk’s office and judge’s chambers are being re-carpeted as well.
We welcomed two new judges to family law this year. Judge Linda Lye started her family law assignment in January. Judge Ben Reyes started his family law assignment in June. Both come to the Bench with civil litigation experience and have applied their thoughtful, well-balanced approach to their family law cases. Beginning January 2021 the family law department will lose Judge Cheryl Mills. Fortunately, Judge Mills was able to offer assistance to the family department upon reopening the courts to reduce the backlog of settlement conferences and trials.
With all the challenges already faced in family law, the family law department is losing our director, Jim Paulsen, and two amazing courtroom clerks, Jocelyn Lewis and Leizl Villaspin. It will be tough to replace their dedication, hard work, and overall positive attitude to serving the Contra Costa County community. Of course, the family law department will continue to meet the needs of the Contra Costa community even in the absence of our much valued family law director and courtroom clerks.