(Alabama family law) The concept of private Judges is not new and not exclusive to the State of Alabama. Many other states have had this type of legislation in place for many years in some form, and it appears for the most part it has been successful. Generally the issue of private Judges will vary on factors such as type of case to be heard, and that all cases are non-jury type cases such as domestic relations.
In Alabama private Judges became a real option on July 1, 202 when the Act authorizing private judges was codified. Ala. Code § 12-17-350 et seq. (1975, as amended). The availability of private Judges on domestic relations cases is in my opinion a way of offering another option to be utilized in the arena of domestic relations cases, and can greatly increase the efficiency of the legal process.
It offers a compromise between a regular trial court and mediation. Mediation is a very effective tool in divorce cases and custody matters but all parties know that if an agreement is not reached there is nothing the mediator can do to ultimately dispose of the case, and it will have to go to trial. In contrast a regular trial court will hear any evidence in a formal court setting and then issue an order that removes all control from either party as to the issues of the case and the order will dispose of the case except for any available post-trial motions or appeals.
The benefits of having a private Judge hear your divorce case or other domestic relations matter can be worthwhile in certain circumstances. Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is that people will be able to “judge shop” for the one they want. While it may seem that way and a person can have a choice in the Judge they hire there is a rule in place that will have to be followed. The parties, if they choose to hire a private Judge, must agree on the same Judge. This keeps a balance of fairness to the choice and prevents one sided choosing of which Judge to hire. The State of Alabama maintains a list of available (mostly retired) judges including their areas of expertise and years of experience on the bench. Once appointed to the case this Judge will manage the entire case.
Secondly, timeliness is a large benefit. The private Judge will not have a large docket to manage or hundreds of other cases that may cause delays in obtaining a timely disposition in your case. Such delays may constitute several months and during that time a client may suffer other adverse effects. A pending divorce for example can quickly cause both sides to begin receiving calls regarding debt collection for unpaid marital bills, and foreclosure on the marital home due to no resolution is a real possibility that happens often. From a client point of view this may be a money saving option also.
On the other hand there are disadvantages to consider. A private Judge is not a free judge and he or she will have to be hired to hear the case and an hourly fee will surely be applied. This Judge is going to conduct his handling of the case the same a regular trial court Judge, but hopefully faster and more efficiently.
In summary, Experience offered by a private Judge and efficiency of the judicial process is the main reason for considering whether or not to agree to hire a private judge. The option of a private Judge to hear domestic relation cases can be a benefit to the right client and in the right circumstance. While payment to this Judge is a factor, that factor could easily be outweighed by the possibility of lengthy delays waiting to have a trial with the regular circuit court Judge.
Contact a family law attorney from Parkman & White, LLC for more information about domestic relation cases.