A Rhode Island divorce attorney discusses the lack of divorce trial in Providence, Kent, Newport and Washington County Family Court. This article was rewritten in 2016 as a result of a recent trend of more progressive and modern judges who are more receptive to trials on the merits in Rhode Island Family Court. There are definitely a lot more divorce trial now then there were just 5 years ago! Nonetheless, the original premise of the article stands correct, there are not that many divorce trials in Rhode Island. Also, a large percent of divorce trial that start, settle before the judge issues a decision
Why are there so few Divorce Trials in Rhode Island?
If you visit Providence Family Court for an entire month, walking from Courtroom to Courtroom you probably will not see too many divorce trials. The likelihood of a trial actually being completed with a Rhode Island Family Court Judge issuing a decision is very small.
Why are there so few Divorce Trials in Rhode Island Family Court?
If there are thousands of cases filed in Rhode Island Family Court, why is there such a dearth of divorce trials on the merits? Divorce trials are very different from divorce hearings. A hearing is when a judge takes testimony or hears arguments from counsel about pretrial matters such as child custody, child support, child visitation, contempt, restraining orders, discovery motions, motions to modify child support, temporary alimony etc.
Divorce hearings occur much more frequently than divorce trials.
If you are visiting Court and see someone testifying it is most likely a hearing or a nominal hearing rather than a divorce trial. When the parties reach a settlement pursuant to Rhode Island Law there must be a brief “nominal” hearing in which the parties must testify. This type of hearing is a formality.
There are a myriad of reasons for the minuscule amount of Rhode Island Divorce Trials.
A fundamental “culture” and practice has evolved over decades in Rhode Island Family Court which is premised on encouraging out of Court settlements both directly and indirectly. In some instances, the pressure for a settlement is direct from the Trial Judge. In other instances, the parties perceive that if they are the person who is perceived as being unreasonable that there will be some sort of penalty or adverse ruling at trial. Often that perception is just a perception rather than a reality.
In some ways, a divorce trial is viewed by the Court as a breakdown of the system because the entire process is premised around parties reaching a settlement prior to trial. The system in itself tends to wear the parties down to the point that they feel they have no other realistic option but to settle.
Parties can be worn down both emotionally and financially by the Rhode Island Family Court process.
As far as equitable division of Assets in a Rhode Island Divorce is concerned, there is usually no absolute winners and losers. In a Rhode Island Contract or Personal Injury case that goes to trial, there is usually a winner and loser. In a Rhode Island Criminal Trial, the accused is either guilty or not guilty after trial. In a Divorce Trial, the Judge attempts to fashion an equitable solution to divide assets. In other words, if you cannot settle your divorce there will be a quasi settlement imposed by the judge after hearing testimony.
A seasoned and experienced Rhode Island Divorce Lawyer often has a general idea as to the outcome of the Providence family Court divorce trial. Many cases settle because the RI divorce attorney informs their client that they cannot in all likelihood do better at trial and may do a lot worse.
How do parties get worn down to the point of settlement?
There are often many Court dates prior to the Divorce Trial that involve waiting hours to have motions or pretrial conferences resolved. Cases are often continued for various reasons including the calendars of lawyers, the litigants and the Judges. Some cases are continued because more information or documents are needed or more time is needed for various reasons.
There are often frequent review dates to determine the progress of certain orders. For example, in a divorce involving Visitation or Child Custody issues, the Family Court may hold frequent review dates to determine the progress and compliance with a visitations schedule. If a person is not paying child support on a timely basis or is falling behind on child support, there may be frequent review dates to insure compliance with Rhode Island Child Support Court orders.
Contentious RI divorce
In contentious Divorce cases, the parties through their Rhode Island Divorce lawyers often file frequent motions concerning, Child Custody, Child Support, Child Visitation, Restraining Orders and the disposition of Marital assets. There are often frequent pretrial conferences in which the judge attempts to facilitate a settlement or helps the parties find a middle ground towards settlement.
The Rhode Island Family Court process can wreak havoc on a litigants work schedule causing their employer to become disappointed. Some people lose their job as a result of frequent Rhode Island Family Court appearances. Some people lose income as a result of the Rhode Island Divorce process.
Many people lose a sense of their dignity going through the sometimes contentious, confusing and unpredictable divorce process.
There is one fundamental truth in Rhode Island Family Court. Everyone must go through a similar process irrespective or race, gender and socioeconomic class. Usually in contested Rhode Island Divorce cases, the only thing that is predictable is the unpredictable nature of Rhode Island Family Court.
Attorney fees can become too expensive for a party to afford. Expensive Attorneys fees may be caused by frequent lengthy Court Dates, waiting in Court, the time and expense of answering discovery and preparing for the trial. In some cases when one spouse has more resources then the other spouse they may try to drive up the other spouse’ attorney fees to essentially force them into settlement. This is very unfair but it is the real world of divorce in Rhode Island (RI).
Rhode island Family Court Judge’s encourage settlement
It is very expensive and time consuming endeavor for a Rhode Island Divorce Attorney to prepare for a Divorce Trial.
Parties often want to curtail the amount of trial preparation because of the expense. A Rhode Island Divorce lawyer must prepare testimony for all witnesses they intend to call to testify in the proceeding. The Providence child custody attorney must prepare cross examinations of all opposing witnesses, prepare exhibits, prepare opening and closing statements. The East Providence divorce Lawyer must also be prepared to argue motions as well as draft an extensive pretrial memorandum etc. Many clients do not want to pay the additional expense for their Attorneys’ trial preparation and would rather settle.
Divorce trials are not similar to the trials that you see on television
Often judges have many other matters on the calendar on the day the divorce trial is scheduled. In Many instances, the divorce trial will not start until after 11 am. It is not unusual for the court to allow only 2 hours a day for the actual trial. Sometimes the Court will hear less than 2 hours of trial testimony in a day. Therefore a trial can take many days to complete. Some Trials take weeks or months to complete.
Let’s take a look at the various Counties in Rhode Island. Newport Family Court has 1 judge hearing divorce trials. That Judge is also responsible to hear and decide all Family Court matters in Newport County Family Court including Child Support, Divorce, Child Custody, Restraining orders etc. On most days the Judge must resolve all matters scheduled for that day. The Judge cannot cancel all other important family Court business in order to hear a trial in Newport. The Judge must fit the trial into his or her schedule. This usually means that the trial will start after all of the courts business is resolved for that day. Newport County Includes Newport RI, Middletown, Portsmouth and Tiverton.
Kent County has 2 judges handling Divorce, Child Custody, Visitation and Family Court matters. Kent County Family Court includes Warwick, East Greenwich, Coventry and North Kingston. Washington County Family Court has 1 judge hearing Divorce, Post Divorce Motions, Child Custody, Child support, Adoptions and Family Court matters. Washington county Family Court includes Wakefield, South Kingston and Narragansett etc.
Providence County Family Court includes Providence, Pawtucket, Barrington, Bristol, Warren, East Providence, Cumberland etc.
Why does the system “wear down” divorce litigants?
The Court system is overburdened and judges have many cases on the docket on a given day. If every case went to trial the system would break down. If a substantial percent of cases went to a divorce trial the system would break down. The family Court Lacks the Judges and resources to have too many cases go to trial. The Court does not tell you it is trying to wear you down. The Judges may not intend to wear you down. However, the entire process has the practical effect of wearing parties down until they feel that they must settle to cut their losses.
Even though some parties do not want to settle their divorce, they fear that going to trial will be a loss of control
The loss of control is essentially allowing the Trial judge to make decisions rather than the parties agreeing to negotiated solution controlled by the parties. In a mediated / negotiated resolution, the parties have some control over the outcome even though they may be in some ways dissatisfied. Rhode Island Divorce Lawyers often encourage settlement so long as the settlement is fair to the clients under the circumstances.
There is often pressure from the Trial Court Judge both direct and indirect to resolve the matter short of trial. All Judges want to settle cases! Judges rarely want to hear divorce trials.
It is not unusual for a case to go to the day of trial yet settle before the trial starts. Why does this happen? This phenomenon is often caused by clients and their lawyers attempting to get leverage to obtain the best settlement possible. There is obviously gamesmanship inherent in negotiations. Contentious Cases tend to settle immediately before a trial starts. Both sides are essentially driving at each other at 100 miles an hour but one or both usually veer at the last second to avert a collision. What is the solution to this problem? The only real solution is to settle your divorce in a manner that is fair and equitable and in your best interests under the circumstances and protects your legal rights. Sometimes this is easier said than done!
In some limited cases, the judge is frusterated by both litigants delaying and being petty and unreasonable. In some of those case the judge will start a trial without the real intention of finishing it. After brief testimony, the judges may try to curtail the case by giving the parties an idea of how he or she may rule on the matter. This is usually done by the judge calling the parties into a settlement conference in the midst of the trial and attempting to engineer a settlement.
Keep in mind that every judge is different and there are some judges who regularly preside over divorce trials.
“The proportion of custodial parents due child support payments who received any payments—either full or partial—decreased between 2007 and 2009, from 76.3 percent to 70.8 percent. Those who received the full amount of child support due fell from 46.8 percent in 2007 to 41.2 percent in 2009 (Figure 4). An additional 29.6 percent of custodial parents received partial child support payments in 2009. Custodial parents due child support from noncustodial parents and who received no payments increased to 29.2 percent in 2009, up from 23.7 percent in 2007.24. Receipt of child support due differed by demographic group. For the 1.5 million custodial parents below the poverty level and due child support in 2009, 66.3 percent received at least some child support payments. This included 36.1 percent who received all support that was due, an increase from 26.4 percent in 1993, and 30.2 percent who received less than the full amount of child support due, a decrease from 44.1 percent in 1993.” Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2009 Consumer Income Issued December 2011 P60-240 http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-240.pdf
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The Rhode Island Supreme Court licenses all lawyers in the general practice of law, but does not license or certify any lawyer / attorney as an expert or specialist in any field of practice.