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What Is Family Court?

In some North Carolina counties, including Pitt County, there is a specific Family Court Program devoted to cases involving child custody and support, alimony and equitable distribution (division of marital property). In Pitt County we have a Family Court Administrator and two Family Court Coordinators. I’ll call the program FC for Family Court.

What’s the Role of Family Court?

FC operates behind the scenes kind of like air traffic controllers, herding judges, attorneys, unrepresented people and miscellaneous others through the court system in family law cases. Their objective is to help everyone navigate the court system. Contrast FC with clerks of court who are frequently in the courtroom keeping track of exhibits, swearing or affirming witnesses to testify, and having documents available for the judge during the trial. Judges have staff members who support the judges. However, judges preside over more than just family law cases. For example, judges handle cases in criminal court and traffic court.

What Does Family Court Do?

FC follows each case and enforces the local rules that apply to the procedures attorneys, parties, and judges must follow. In consultation with the judges, FC has some discretion to make certain administrative decisions, such as facilitating routine requests to continue cases. This helps keep the process moving along a bit quicker. FC monitors the completion of cases, prodding them to be resolved one way or the other instead of leaving them linger unresolved if people drag their feet. Annually, the North Carolina Judicial Branch, attorneys and citizens have to advocate strongly to keep FC programs from being cut out from the state budget. Some people don’t realize the money saved by the state and time saved by the judges by employing additional employees to operate Family Court. After all, nobody gets married (or has children) expecting to be a party in a lawsuit in the midst of a crisis. They deserve a system that is responsive and gives them a timely resolution.

The Old System

The Old System Courtroom time is a limited and precious resource. There are many more cases to be heard than there are judges to hear them. A key function of FC is to assign “real” court dates for trials. Although each judge and lawyer was absorbed in each case, there was no effective mechanism for managing the “big picture” of court. FC became that mechanism. Before FC, attorneys had calendar call several times a month, each time taking 60-90 minutes of the judge’s time to hear attorneys argue why their cases were truly emergencies important enough to receive courtroom time. Routinely, well over 100 family law cases were scheduled for a one-week term of court in Pitt County. If a five-day long trial was scheduled to be heard that week, none of the other cases were heard. Then, an avalanche of orders continuing all the other cases had to be prepared by attorneys, sent to the judge’s office to be processed, signed by the judge and filed in the clerk’s office creating stacks of documents to be maintained and tracked. Cases took years to wind through the system.

The Benefits of Family Court

The old system not only wasted judges’ time, it wasted attorneys’ time, costing clients more. Attorneys would have to repeatedly prepare for court every couple weeks as new events and incidents in the family arose because the case might be heard the next week. FC allows attorneys to better prepare our cases and minimizes inconvenience to parties and witnesses who were often placed on standby for months as cases were usually continued every two weeks. Although many people don’t recognize it, taxpayers save money with FC. Staff time is much less expensive than that of the judges. The fewer hours a judge spends dealing with things like scheduling trials, the better. Pitt County modernized our local court rules and created consistency by developing certain forms for routine matters. Because FC cases are assigned to judges, each judge knows the family dynamics. That alleviates the need for a judge to plow through a file (sometimes five or six inches thick) to familiarize himself or herself with the family before every hearing. This not only makes court more efficient, saving the court resources, but it gives the parties better outcomes.

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