Enough of the Bias Already! When Family Court Judges Cross the Line!

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Atty Chris Pearsall

Authored By:  Christopher Pearsall, RI Divorce Attorney
a.k.a.  " The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠ "

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Sometimes things happen in Family Court that push the brink of what is fair or just or reasonable.  I've spoken up against some of them and I've been threatened with contempt if I say another word even if I have to do so in order to protect my client's rights.

There's nothing more aggravating than when you are found in contempt and taken down to lockup at the courthouse because you asserted your clients rights on the record because the Rules of Evidence require an attorney to do so in order to protect your client's rights in the event of an appeal.

Yet there are times when you witness or are privy to a transcript that shows a blatant judicial bias that is so evident that is exceeds the bonds not only of reasonableness but of judicial discretion.

Not long ago I had the opportunity to be privy to information on a case that was not mine but made my stomache turn.

Wilfred and his wife Gertrude reach an agreement to resolve their divorce.  All Wilfred wants is his engagement ring back and a payment of $15,000 from Gertrude.

Wilfred apparently knew that he's not entitled to the engagement ring back by law but Gertrude still agreed to give it back.  Though it was a short marriage, Gertrude also agreed to pay Wilfred the $15,000 he asked for.

Should be simple right?  Go before the judge and present the agreement, the residency, the irreconcilable differences and you're done in about 10 or 15 mins.

Apparently the judge was upset about Wilfred getting the engagement ring back since the law wouldn't allow for it if they were to go to trial.  Wilfred ended up getting chewed up one side and down the other by the Judge.  Then Gertrude was grilled about whether she got a lawyer's advice and from whom.  The judge even went so far as to legally advise Gertrude that Wilfred wouldn't be entitled to the engagement ring by law.  That's right... the "impartial judge" gave Gertrude legal advice!  Sound a little less than impartial to you?  It sure does to me.  

The judge took a good 40 mins trying to tank this agreement when both parties repeated over and over that this is what they wanted.  The judge not only told the woman that the settlement was inequitable to her but placed it in the court's record that there was a finding that the settlement was inequitable to Gertrude.  Apparently Wilfred asked to talk to the judge or explain the circumstances and he was told that the judge didn't want to hear a word out of him and that "No, he could not explain."

As a divorce attorney I have done hundreds of Nominal Divorce hearings and to say that a proper one should take no more than 15 to 20 mins is generous.  But 40 Minutes?  This guy was dressed up and down and the judge did everything possible to tank this agreement because it was "PRESUMABLY" in favor or the man because the Judge didn't want to hear anything else from Wilfred.

This is wrong!  Yes, here I will be the judge of my own accord.  The judge made a snap decision based upon limited information known to the judge because it was a NOMINAL hearing and the judge literally prohibited the presentation of more facts to show why the agreement may well be equitable.  Instead, the judge acted poorly and out of willful ignorance by rejecting additional information that might have helped the judge's perspective.  

Instead, the judge saw benefits in the agreement to the husband without seeing equal benefits to Gertrude.  I believe this experienced judge would know that PRO SE people often only keep their agreements simple and they don't put the rest.  Details make a huge difference.  Conduct makes a huge difference.  A large amount of commingled funds makes a big difference.  Cleaning out the marital bank accounts makes a great deal of difference.  Yet whatever the circumstances the PRO SE people did not spell it out in their agreement.  It was a NO FAULT/Irreconcilable Differences divorce.  They did not want to point fingers.  

Wilfred and Gertrude had their reasons for the agreement they reached.  They both found it fair and reasonable.  Why"?  Because it was!!!  The fact that the judge chose to ignore the fact that circumstances outside the Agreement that the court did not need to know so that fingers wouldn't be pointed were not included made this case adversarial in the Judge's mind.  Yet the Judge didn't want to hear anymore.  The man was wrong because it merely "looked" like he was getting the benefit of the best part of an agreement.

If the judge knew that Gertrude kept $150,000 of monies Wilfred might have had a claim too, would that have made a difference in his request merely for his engagement ring back and $15,000?

If the Judge knew that Gertrude cleaned out their apartment and left him with nothing except a lease to pay on his own income.  Might that have made a difference?

If the Judge knew that Gertrude was divorcing Wilfred because she took a tea reading class online and the tea leaves told her too and Wilfred had spent all his money setting them up in an apartment and getting her a nice engagement ring only to come home to an empty apartment and bills to pay after a very short marriage.

I could give a million examples the judge could have considered.  What might Wilfred said to the Judge?  I don't know.  But I do know that the Judge didn't want to hear it and because of that the judge determined (and in my humble opinion wrongfully so and in a biased fashion against the man because he was a man) that the settlement was inequitable.  

Personally, I am tired of bias in the courts.  I am tired of ignorance in the courts.  I am tired of judges who do not listen to counsel and do not listen to PRO SE individuals in the courts who merely seek to explain or give additional information so that a judge can make a fair and INFORMED decision.

Judges, while I have respect for many of you.... you are not God!  You are people!  You are not infallible!  If you would listen a bit more before you judge then fairness and equity would be achieved in our court system.  

Yet most of all, I am disappointed that as an overall trend I have seen little change (except with a few select judges or magistrates) in the tenor of the court.  I see inconsistencies in the decisions from day to day.  I see a lack of caring or understanding that you are ruling on significant parts of people's lives and not simply people who are in your court whining because they want things their own way.

Most of all, I am disappointed that I constantly see that many men are not judged equally with women.  I see men judged more harshly, I see men who are doing their very best and yet they are scorned or required to do even more by the court.  I see men losing placement of their children to women who disappear from a child's life for 3 years without an ounce of support only to mysteriously jump back into the child's life and not only ask for placement but get it because of judicial arm twisting telling attorney's that the the mother is going to get placement no matter how hard the father's attorney fights.

I no longer hold my head up high for this profession that I have chosen to be a part of.  I hold my head up high for my own moral integrity and willingness to do what it takes for my client and for speaking out against blatant injustices in our system.

I know it is hard to be a judge.  I cannot imagine the pressure that must come with such a position and the caseload that must be managed.  Yet if it is managed merely to clear one's calendar rather than to achieve justice and equity, then it is managed without regard for the people the court's were intended to serve and assist.

It is my sincere hope that this article is taken to heart by those who read it in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Florida, etc.... My state is not alone on this issue yet I seem to be one of the few practitioners willing to speak out against a system that is in need of reform, repair, or perhaps just the reminder that the courts are here to help the people with issues that are serious and important parts of their lives.  The people entrust something dear to them to this system and only expect kindness and fairness in return.

Though I rarely bring religion into my postings.  I do pray that our Family Court Judges and Magistrates realize the nature of what each person who comes before you entrusts to you.... an important and often difficult part of their lives that needs your wisdom, kindness and fairness.  God Bless You All!

Why do the court clerks make a big deal about filing my initial papers for my divorce?

Picture of Attorney Christopher Pearsall
Atty Chris Pearsall

By:  Christopher Pearsall, Esquire
a.k.a.  " The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠ "

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This is a loaded question.  I hear people who are angry at the clerks for not helping them with the forms.  Other people are upset when the clerks caution people to speak with a lawyer about filling out the paperwork.

The big problem here that causes the frustration for people is that they want to do this without a lawyer because they either do not have money to spend on a lawyer or they simply don't want to spend money on a lawyer.  

I can understand that.  That is the very reason I created my coaching program because I knew people needed a more affordable way to get help with the documents that are filed with the family court when they file for divorce.  Perhaps my biggest mistake was failing to understand that most people don't understand the significance of the documents they are creating.

So let's address the main question.  Are the clerks making a big deal because the papers really are a big deal?  Or are the clerks making a big deal because they get tired of people's angry attitudes when they have to reject their papers because they are wrong or incomplete?

Truthfully I think that both of those questions give us the reason.  Perhaps people would get the message if there weren't any things called "forms" given out by the court at all.

Now this has nothing to do with wanting to deny attorneys or anyone else access to some forms that could generally be used for divorces.  Heck, forms make things easier for everyone don't they.  They certainly make them easier for me.  

However, here is one of the problems that forms cause.  When you have a form, here is what people think,

"Hey, this is easy to do this.  I just fill in the blanks in each of these forms.  I don't need a lawyer for this.  I know how to write and so I just fill in the blanks with what makes sense.  Or, better yet I'll look at one that was done in another case by an attorney and I'll use what they wrote but apply it to my own case.  So I don't need a lawyer.  I don't need the hassle of finding one and I can keep the money in my own pocket."


So, all of these things happen because the court provides a few forms.  Some of the forms are semi-clear. Some of them are vague with big blanks in them.  Some of the divorce forms have tremendous signficance. Do you know which forms are which?  Do you know which ones you CAN NOT afford to make a mistake on?

Do you know that for some cases, even simple cases, there is crucial language that can hurt you if you don't include it?  Most people don't.  Did you know that the clerks can't give you advice about filling out the divorce forms as much as they might like to?  Why?  Because they are not attorneys and the law prohibits them from doing do.

So they give you a hard time about filing your initial papers for your divorce because it IS a big deal!  Sometimes even one word..... that's right.... ONE WORD. . . can make you or break in a divorce.  Every word you put in those forms has to do with your legal rights.

Do you think the divorce court clerks are thoughtless and could care less about you?  On the contrary, I have known many of these clerks for years and I know they are not only good people but they are caring people.  Do you know how hard it is for them to perform their jobs and have their hands tied from trying to help you because the law prevents them from giving legal advice?  These folks care about you.  If they gave you a big deal or if you felt hassled, then remember that they care!  They have a hard job.  

I've seen a few clerks try to help people with the forms only to get reprimanded because they are not supposed to give out legal advice and because they might be (and sometimes are) incorrect in what they told the person.

So I'll curse the forms on this one.  If you think that because some forms exist that this is easy and you don't need even the advice or help of a lawyer, then you need to get a grip on the concept of divorce.

EVERY divorce is different and I do mean EVERY SINGLE ONE!  Your life does not fit any form!  Unless a lawyer sees it clearly enough to make the form conform to your life and legally protect you.... then your form might as well be a bunch of blanks each of which is a landmine waiting for you to step on it and blow your legal rights all to hell!  You are not a template!

Trust me when I tell you that I made a few minor mistakes in my early years of practice by excluding things from those blanks that need to be included.  Thankfully I was allowed by the court to fix those errors under exceptions to certain rules.

Don't expect a clerk or a judge to protect you.  When you hire a lawyer to give you advice then that's his or her job!  Are we necessary?  Absolutely!!!

Should the clerks make a big deal about the initial filing of your divorce papers?  Yes!  If they didn't, they would be doing you a disservice.  

Get some legal advice.  You don't have to get full blown representation in every case but if you don't get some legal advice about your paperwork and your rights, then you are acting foolishly.

These are your rights.  If you're willing to buy a few Christmas presents for $150 or $300 at holiday time or to pay for a party for your child but you're not willing to spend the same amount to protect your legal rights in a divorce then clearly your legal rights don't have the priority they should.

Hopefully this helps you understand why clerks make a big deal about your initial divorce papers when you go to file them.  Because they are important and chances are better than not that you forgot something and they get so tired of seeing people who are throwing their rights out the window when they could afford some proper legal advice.

Do yourself a favor!  Get some legal advice from an experienced Rhode Island family court lawyer!