Informal Divorce Trials (or Informal Domestic Relations Trials) are a judicial experiment in docket efficiency. In May 2013, the Deschutes County Circuit Court begun a pilot program with “Informal Domestic Relations Trials (IDRT).” “Domestic relation” matters include divorce trials, separation trials, custody determinations between unmarried parents, and modification cases regarding child custody, parenting time, and child support.
The official statement from the Deschutes County Court webpage is that, “The Court initiated this pilot project because the court recognized that the rules which govern how trials are conducted in domestic relations cases are often difficult for self-represented litigants to follow.”
While the official position is that these trials were created to help pro se litigants (that is: parties proceeding without legal representation or advice by an attorney), the trials were more likely created to assist the local judges in thinning out crowded dockets. Shortening trials– and the presentation of important evidence– by using time-limits, abandoning long-established rules of evidence designed to ensure fairness and justice in the court process, and limiting the use of witnesses– including even expert witnesses– is more about docket efficiency than helping unrepresented parties with important family disputes.
When someone (e.g. a judge with a busy docket) tells you they can help you by handling your matter quickly and informally, you should be skeptical. Decisions as to where your children live, where they grow up, where they go to school, how often they see each parent, who makes all major educational, religious, and medical decisions on behalf of your children, how much money is paid in support, who provides their health insurance and pays for their medical and health expenses, etc. are all very important decisions, and should not be handled “informally” by anyone. Courthouses exist throughout Oregon and state judges are collectively paid millions of dollars to handle these matters with the utmost care and deliberation.
Consider the following:
- At the time of the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1789, each of the original thirteen states had a fully functioning judicial system. A functioning and well-respected legal system is absolutely critical for people to resolve their disputes peacefully, and to feel that there is order and consistency in legal matters.
- The Oregon Constitution was ratified on November 9, 1857, and took effect when Oregon achieved statehood on February 14, 1859. The Oregon Constitution establishes the rights of Oregonians to access “due course of law” in the “administration of justice.”
- The Oregon Evidence Code has been developed over a period of decades with the primary goal being fairness in hearings and trials, and prohibiting irrelevant, unreliable, and unfairly prejudicial evidence from being admitted or considered by judges and juries.
- Likewise, the Oregon Rules of Civil Procedure were developed over a period of decades for the purposes of ensuring procedural and substantive fairness in civil disputes.
- Lastly, Oregon attorneys are sworn to advocate on behalf of their clients and are prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct from agreeing to limit their diligent representation of clients.
Now, with all this in mind, further consider that some members of the Oregon judiciary want parties to give up or severely compromise all of their rights to a fair and impartial hearing outlined above. They want parties to do this so that judges can clear their dockets and work less. They want parents to give up their protections under the evidence code, to disregard the rules of civil procedure, and to agree to limit their rights to have an attorney do everything and anything within their skill set and power to advocate zealously on behalf of their client. Why would anyone who cares about their family agree to this?
Expansion of Informal Divorce Trials throughout Oregon
To the extent judges in counties outside Deschutes see informal divorce trials as a way to ease their caseloads and dockets, informal divorce trials as an experiment will be seen as a “success” and adopted in other counties. Multnomah County– Oregon’s most populated county– has been looking at informal divorce trials as a way to thin their docket. Multnomah County will be encouraging parties to use fill-in-the-blank divorce forms online in 2018 as a way to more quickly file for divorce. They are also encouraging people to avoid hearings and trials in order to lessen their workload.
“Should I have an Informal Divorce Trial?”
If you are considering an “informal” trial on any matter of importance, it’s strongly advised that you first consider having a consultation with an attorney. The cost of a consultation will range anywhere from free to a few hundred dollars (depending on the attorney). At the very least, the attorney should be able to tell you whether or not an informal trial is right for your family, and may be able to provide you with some suggestions on how to handle your own trial if you decide to do so. As a general rule, you should avoid informal divorce trials and any attempt to give up your rights to a fair and thorough hearing.