By Jordan Levey
Throughout your family law case, your attorney should inform you about any upcoming court dates. There are a variety of different types of courtroom proceedings that will take place during your case, some of which you will need to attend and others your attorney can cover on your behalf. However, you always have the option to attend a court date whether or not your presence is required. Each type of proceeding has its own purpose and procedures.
Status: To ensure that each case is moving along, the Court requires the parties check-in periodically at what’s called a “Status.” Statuses are usually set every 30-45 days, and will comprise the majority of your court proceedings. The purpose of a Status is to update the Judge regarding the progress of your case, present new Motions, enter any Agreed Orders, and schedule the next court date. If you are represented by an attorney, then you are usually not required to appear in court for Statuses (unless you are court-ordered to be present or your attorney tells you otherwise).
Presentation of Motions/Petitions: Whenever a party files a new motion/petition, a court date will be scheduled to present it to the Judge. The first time a motion/petition is presented, the Judge will usually grant the other party time to file a written response and continue the motion/petition to a future court date. Unless the motion/petition is being presented as an Emergency, the Judge will typically not consider any evidence or testimony when the motion/petition is first presented. Unless you were otherwise instructed to appear in court on the date a new pleading is presented, it is not necessary for you to be present in court when your attorney presents your motion/petition.
Pretrial Conference: In order to help parties settle their cases outside of court, the Judge may schedule a pretrial conference. Typically, pretrial conferences take place in the Judge’s chambers (the Judge’s office) rather than in the courtroom. The Judge will meet privately in chambers with the attorneys. The parties do not participate directly in the pretrial, but may be ordered to be present in court on that date. Sometimes the Judge will request that the attorneys deliver pretrial memorandums and supporting documentation prior to the pretrial conference, to provide the Judge with background information regarding the outstanding issues and each party’s position. During the pretrial, each attorney will have an opportunity to present arguments on behalf of their clients. Pretrial conferences are often conducted somewhat informally, as opposed to Hearings or Trial where formal evidence and testimony is presented. Based upon the arguments and discussion during the pretrial conference, the Judge will make recommendations regarding the various issue(s). Usually the Judge’s recommendations are not binding, as with a court ruling. However, occasionally a Judge may schedule a “binding” pretrial, in which case any recommendations will be binding and enforceable. The Judge’s recommendations give the attorneys and idea regarding where the Judge stands on the various issues in your case. In other words, it helps your attorneys predict how a Judge may rule on the issues in your case at a Hearing or Trial. The Judge may also suggest alternative solutions to help the parties reach a mutual agreement.
Hearing: If there are specific issues in your case that cannot be resolved by agreement, then the Judge may schedule a Hearing. Hearings are conducted on specific issues during the pendency of your case (e.g., temporary child support, spousal support, etc). Hearings may be evidentiary (meaning that evidence and testimony is presented), or non-evidentiary (meaning that the Judge will just hear oral arguments but no evidence or formal testimony will be taken). Both parties are typically required to be present in Court for all Hearings. After both parties present their case, the Judge will make a ruling on the issue(s), which will be binding and enforceable.
Trial: There are two ways to finalize a family law case: either by agreement or by going to trial. If you get stuck on certain issues and cannot reach a full agreement with the other party, then the Judge will schedule a trial on all outstanding issues. Trials often take more than one day to complete, and involve a lot of preparation. Both parties and their witnesses will need to be present in court for the trial. The party who initiated the case (aka “the Petitioner”) will present his/her case first, meaning that person will call all of his/her witnesses and present all of his/evidence. Once the Petitioner’s case rests, then the Respondent will have an opportunity to present his/her case as well. Each side will have an opportunity to cross-examine the other party’s witnesses. At the end of the trial, the Judge will make a ruling on all issues. Sometimes the Judge’s ruling is made orally, in which case the attorneys will have to prepare a written Judgment. Other times, the Judge will take some time to draft a written Judgment and distribute it to both sides at a future date. The case will be finalized once the Judgment is entered.
Case Management Conference: When a case is going to trial, the Judge may schedule a case management conference. The purpose of a case management conference is to set a schedule for trial preparation. Various deadlines will be set, like the date to finalize discovery and the date to exchange a list of witnesses. An Order will be entered outlining the deadlines and court dates.
Prove-Up: When the parties are able to reach a full agreement, such agreement will be memorialized in a written Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage (“Judgment”). In order to finalize the case and have the Judgment entered by the Court, you will need to schedule a prove-up date. At your prove-up, your attorney and/or the Judge will ask you questions and walk you through the terms of the Judgment. Often, a court reporter will be there to prepare a transcript of the prove-up testimony. At the conclusion of your prove-up, the Judge will enter the Judgment and your case will be finalized. If the written agreement is signed by both parties, then typically only the Petitioner is required to be present in court for the prove-up. More about what happens during a Prove-Up is outlined here: http://www.divorcelawyerchicago.com/blog/9-things-you-need-to-know-about-a-prove-up/
It can sometimes be confusing for litigants to know what will take place in their case on a given day in court. There will likely be a variety of different types of courtroom proceedings throughout your case. It is important for you to stay informed about all upcoming court dates, if your presence is required, and what will take place.