How Do Private Judges AKA “Neutrals” Work in California Divorces?

A growing trend in California divorces – yet one that many people deep in the stress of the divorce process may never have heard of – is the use of what are called “private judges,” also referred to as “neutrals” or “judges pro tem.” Essentially, a private judge is an individual who the parties in a divorce or other family law dispute can hire to act as the judge in their proceeding the same way a judge in a county courtroom would.

A private judge’s rulings have all the power of those of a judge in a public courtroom, and indeed a private judge will, pursuant to the California Constitution, be appointed by the county family court with jurisdiction over a family law case to make binding rulings with the force of law. The same laws – including the California Family Code, California Code of Civil Procedure, and California Evidence Code – apply to parties litigating before a private judge as they do to those in the public courts.

So if resolving your divorce case before a private judge has so many similarities to the “normal” process of litigating in the courts, why would someone pay for the privilege of litigating before a private judge? Here are just a few reasons.

You Won’t Waste Time and Money Waiting on the Court System

You don’t have to spend very much time at all in a divorce case before you realize how long and arduous a journey you are on in trying to resolve your issues in a public courtroom. A typical Request for Order hearing on a preliminary issue might not be scheduled until months after you file it. And when you arrive at 8:30 AM on the day of your hearing, you might find 20 other cases scheduled that day. Which means you might not get your time in front of the judge until late in the day, while you and the other party pay your attorneys their hourly rate to wait there all day in a crowded and unpleasant atmosphere.

And when your case is finally called before the judge, you might be lucky to get 15-20 minutes before the judge to deal with the issues you have been stressing about for months and paying your attorneys large fees to resolve. Keep in mind that the judge has those other 19 cases on his or her mind, and had to read all the documents submitted for those cases that day as well. In short, your judge’s bandwidth is spread across quite a few cases, no matter how important yours is. It’s also not at all uncommon for the judge to tell you at the end of the hearing that he or she has no rulings and you should come back in another three months to repeat this whole process.

Multiply the delay of the court system exponentially when it comes to a trial that will actually fully resolve your issues, not just temporarily. A five-day trial may have to wait six months before being scheduled, a ten-day trial perhaps a year or more. And with the massive budget shortfalls due to COVID that California courts are facing, expect those delays to get worse.

Now compare this to working with a private judge. A private judge can schedule your hearing or trial as soon as is practical for both parties (and if a certain judge can’t, there are others available that can). While you are paying a private judge for his or her time, you are not paying your attorneys and experts to sit around in court all day waiting for your 15 minutes of time before the judge. And, perhaps more importantly, you are getting your custody, support, or property issue resolved as soon as possible, not in a year or two from now.

You Don’t Have to Litigate in Public

Again, when you go to a public courtroom, you are literally in public. There are often (many) other parties and their attorneys in the courtroom with you waiting for their turn, all watching you as you relay difficult and awkward facts about your family to the court. And anyone is welcome to come to sit and watch your proceedings, whether they have your family’s best interests at heart or not. Even if you’re not a celebrity worried about paparazzi coming to your trial, no one likes having to resolve messy family disputes before strangers in an uncomfortable government building.

Private judges conduct their proceedings with only the parties and those directly associated with the proceedings present. And often these private judge sessions take place in luxurious environments designed to put parties at ease.

Of course, most if not all private judges offer virtual hearings and trials over ZOOM and other videoconferencing services. Which means you can get results both quickly and from the comfort of your own home.

Private Judges Often Have Greater Experience Than Their Public Counterparts

To be clear, many family court judges in the California court system have tremendous experience in family law and do amazing work in helping parties to get results. But others may have never practiced family law and are newly learning the area while sitting on the bench. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they get things “wrong,” but they don’t always know the most efficient and fair way to effectively reach positive outcomes for those in their courtroom (see above the statement about judges telling you to come back in three months after you waited three months for your hearing and waited around all day for nothing).

Private family law judges, however, are generally retired courtroom judges with many decades of experience in handling family law matters. They not only have great knowledge of the law, but they also have exceptional experience in maximizing the efficiency and fairness of the process and helping parties think and act in positive ways to get things done in mutually beneficial ways.

It should also be noted that private judges can and often do work as mediators with parties. IN working as mediators, they do not “call the balls and strikes” in the sense of making binding decisions the parties must abide by, but rather work with the divorcing couple to reach an agreement that both parties voluntarily enter into with the guidance of the mediator (and the ongoing counsel of their respective attorneys).

Guidance on Your California Mediation Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney

If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance in seeking a private judge to resolve your matter or any other California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.