California’s divorce rate is 10% higher than the national average. Our state isn’t the highest in the nation, by any means (that honor belongs to Arkansas), but divorce is still a hot topic. With so many couples splitting, you would think the state would dedicate more public funding toward this area.
Those extra tax dollars spent could help pay for things like court transcriptionists and, most importantly, judges to rule over the massive influx of cases. However, despite so many divorces, so little funding is dedicated to this billion dollar a year industry. The result is the proliferation of private courts, where those who have the means to pay can bypass the traditional court system entirely.
What is a Private Court?
Private court is a euphemism commonly used to describe the practice of hiring private judges to rule over a California court case. A private judge in California acts very much like a public judge and will rule over property and asset division, custody, and support issues.
There are a few distinct differences between public and private courts.
Private Divorces are Often Prompt
The lack of public funding has led to a shortage of available judges and an unmanageable workload for those judges who do remain. With this lack of support, public divorces can often be delayed. An attorney called into court at 9 am, for instance, may not actually be called in front of the judge until 11.
With a private court, your divorce case is almost guaranteed to start on time, which means few delays and lower costs for the couples divorcing.
Private Court Will Cost You
The private court system was devised in the 80s, primarily in the Los Angeles area, to accommodate affluent couples who wanted to divorce while simultaneously avoiding the often-congested public court system.
Known as the “Judge Pro Tempore” or temporary judge program, most private judges are retired judges who returned to public service as a private citizen.
How Much Does a Private Judge Cost?
The answer may surprise you, particularly when weighed against the cost of the average public divorce.
Retired California Court of Appeals Justice Sheila Sonenshine along with attorney Saul Gelbart conducted a cost comparison in 2017 comparing both privately and publicly judged divorces. After factoring in both parties’ attorneys’ fees and the hiring of a few paid experts, the analysis found that a public divorce costs all parties a total of $96,600, while the private divorce came to $69,000.
With such efficiency and extreme focus on the case by the private judge, while the private system may cost a little more up-front, the fees for a private divorce may end up actually lower in the long run.
Private Judges Have Lower Caseloads
Judge Gerald Corman is a retired judge who spent sixteen years ruling over cases in Merced County, where he was used to working through lunch to get through the more than 50 to 100 cases at a time. Though family law only accounted for 20% of all cases back then, there were only 10% of available judges to preside over them. Corman was caught in the middle. Corman called the caseload, “Horrific.”
These days, Corman goes to work with a smile on his face. He’s a private judge for hire and his services have become favored by celebrities and the ultra-wealthy alike, including such famous couples as Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards, Michael Jackson and Debbie Roe, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston and, most recently, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck.
A More Efficient Divorce Process
The lack of judges and excessive workloads has led to judges who have to churn out cases like clockwork, which doesn’t give them nearly enough time to assess each case and make a fair ruling.
A private court, on the other hand, starts on time and is quick and to the point. After all, a private judge can give his or her full attention, something a public court judge could probably use more time for.
Easier on All Parties
Private judges will usually deny presiding over a case where contentions and tempers run high. Private judges tend to adopt a more Laissez-faire approach. This also means you’re unlikely to receive a contempt of court charge with a private judge. Instead, if there is turmoil or trouble, your private judge might up and quit, leaving you to pick up the tab.
And thus, a private judge is better suited for couples going through an amicable divorce, as the process will usually be quick and to the point, with few delays or headaches. For many couples, this privilege is well worth paying for.
Privacy is Guaranteed
A private court is conducted behind closed doors, even though the files dealing with the divorce (as long as they don’t involve abuse or children) are still public.
You do not technically hire a private judge. Instead, your attorney will make the arrangement. You and your spouse can hire this judge from any number of organizations. Once hired, the judge will act just like any other traditional public courthouse judge.
Instead of adjourning in a courtroom where a bailiff is present, a private court hearing will be held separate from the public, possibly in a judge’s chambers or an attorney’s office.
The private judge will hear testimony and weigh evidence before issuing a divorce decree based on California family law. The private judge’s rulings are binding and anyone unhappy with the rulings will have to go through the appellate court system like everyone else.
The primary difference between a traditional judge, which is paid through taxpayer dollars, and a private judge is the cost to you and your spouse. Most private judges are free to set their own fees, which means you could end up paying $100 or over $700 an hour, depending on the judge’s experience level and the county where you reside.
Are Private Judges Fair?
There is an argument that a private judge may be more lenient than one appointed by the public court system. By creating a system whereby judges are hired, those individuals will begin to think about “customer service,” particularly when it comes to the attorneys representing both parties. If the judge awards one spouse’s attorney’s fees to be paid by the other, that attorney isn’t likely to recommend the hiring of that private judge in the future. A private judge may care about both attorneys’ opinions, which isn’t exactly the definition of unbiased.
Still, the hiring of private judges certainly has some benefits, but whether the practice is fair or not is still up for debate and should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
By all accounts, private judges are impartial and dedicated to ruling fairly according to California family law. You simply get a faster and more efficient process by paying the required fees.
The Bar for Entry is Too High for Some
The national average for the cost of divorce is about $15k per person. This sum takes into account attorneys’ fees, court costs, and the cost of hiring one or more professionals like a child custody evaluator, forensic accountant, or real estate appraiser. That sum is of course expected to rise if the divorce is contested or delayed.
Sadly, this means that many won’t be able to hire attorneys at all, which is why so many Californians attempt the do-it-yourself divorce, sometimes with costly ramifications.
The Supreme Court recently forced local courts to provide court reporters in civil cases, and courts are hustling to fill the open slots to comply with the court’s ruling, but no word yet about help with divorce cases. Similarly, there’s no news regarding the hiring of new family court judges, which would make the process of divorce more efficient, less expensive, and easier on all parties involved.
Is California Law Pay to Play?
With 99% of divorcing couples experiencing slow-downs, frustrations, and exorbitant court costs despite lacking the ability to pay them, it’s clear that change is needed.
Many complain that private courts are unfair to those who can’t pay. However, the state does seem to be paying attention.
After an IT system failed to organize California’s trial court system, the state chose three private companies to take on the lucrative business of managing the California court system caseload.
We can only hope that this system comes to family law quickly for more a more streamlined divorce process.
While you shouldn’t have to pay for an attorney and a private judge to get a speedy and fair trial in California, that is the unfortunate reality for many divorcing couples these days.
Still, hope is on the horizon. Hopefully, more public spending at the legal sector will deliver more judges, more workable caseloads, less financial strain, and lowered stress for those Californians considering divorce.
You Don’t Have to Hire a Judge, but You Should Hire an Attorney
Three-fourths of family law litigants don’t have lawyers in the state of California, according to Maureen F. Hallahan, supervising family law judge at San Diego Superior Court. Lacking a divorce attorney can lead to costly mistakes.
Take the story of Marissa York, a Manhattan real-estate agent, who was divorcing her husband of nine years. Marissa first attempted the do-it-yourself option by downloading a $50 online divorce kit; only she was informed by a court clerk that her paperwork was incorrect. After taking the paperwork to a lawyer to be reviewed, Marissa learned that if she waited six months to divorce her husband, she’d be entitled to his pension.
Since the divorce was amicable, Marissa thought she was saving money by going the DIY route. “If I had to do it over,” Marissa said, “I would hire an attorney immediately.”
A divorce doesn’t have to take a long time, especially if both parties are getting along. If you are considering divorce or you have attempted the DIY process and have only been met with frustration and delays, stop the headaches and get on the right track.
The experienced attorneys at Griffith, Young, and Lass, are compassionate and ready to help you get a fair and honest resolution to your case. Get a head start on the next chapter of your life by calling us today for a free consultation.