No custody dispute is quick and easy, but some cases are downright nightmares. As a general rule, parents are first ordered to mediation, where they can hopefully work things out on their own. Court intervention during mediation has been a tricky issue for many years. On the one hand, parents should be allowed to work through their issues privately with the assurance of confidentiality. On the other hand, a mediation can quickly spin out of control. Parties find themselves locking horns meeting after meeting, with no progress being made. In that case, shouldn't the courts step in and take back the reins? When and how the trial courts should intervene had been left to the judge's discretion, which essentially left many parents stranded in a state of legal purgatory.
In 2015, the Appellate Division laid down firm guidelines for the management of highly contentious custody disputes. In D.A. v. R.C., the Appellate Division emphasized the need to put the brakes on runaway custody disputes sooner rather than later. D.A., by the way, was a textbook example of nightmare custody motions . The case was a post judgment matter that was filed 10 years after the initial custody ruling. Both parents were seeking primary custody of their 14 year old son, and were accusing the other parent of being unfit.
After multiple hearings, the trial court ordered that custody and parenting time be split 50/50. However, the ruling included no findings of fact or conclusions of law, nor was there any rationale for how this was in the child's best interest. In fact, they had never interviewed the boy, who at 14, would have been able to give insight into what was going on with his parents. Other procedural issues included the lack of an evidentiary hearing, which was necessary given the nature of each party's accusations. While we can only guess at the court's motivation, it seemed like an attempt to just get things over with.
This was in no way acceptable to the Appellate Division, which stated that the trail court should have been actively involved in the mediation process to ensure that progress was being made. If not, it should have been immediately referred for a plenary hearing. Furthermore, if the court felt the child shouldn't be interviewed, they needed to back their decision with detailed reasons in writing. The appeals court made several other recommendations, such as the appointment of a mental health counselor to help determine what was in the child's best interest. This ruling goes to show that judicial discretion has to be justified by strict procedures and conclusions of law. Judges also need to keep an eye on cases that are in mediation, instead of letting disputes languish with no seeming end. This is an important, and hopeful, ruling for families whose custody disputes have spun out of control. For more information on your custody rights and legal options, please speak with the family law attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.