Intern’s View of Family Court
The Family Division is where family cases are heard, including cases like divorce, parenting, and guardianship of minors. The Family Division is part of New Hampshire’s Circuit Court system, which also has separate District and Probate Divisions. There are 28 Family Division locations across the state, and the court location for any particular case is assigned based on where the parties live.
As a legal intern, I have noticed three factors that make family court unique:
Pro se litigants
Pro se is Latin for “on one’s own behalf,” and it is the phrase used to describe self-represented parties. It is not uncommon in family cases for one or both parties to appear pro se, which creates an interesting dynamic in the courtroom. Although the Family Division website offers resources for self-represented parties, the statutes and court rules can be difficult to maneuver without legal experience. As a law student, I have become especially curious about cases where one party has an attorney and the other does not. In these situations, if the case moves forward through testimony rather than offers of proof, the self-represented litigant might end up cross-examining their former spouse. The courtroom can get very tense without two attorneys there to act as a buffer so that the parties do not have to communicate directly.
At the beginning of a divorce or parenting case, parents with minor children are required to complete a four-hour Child Impact Seminar on the topic of how divorce or separation affects children. Parents also attend First Appearance, where they meet with a judge or marital master who will tell them not to bring their children to the court hearings. In these cases, the overarching goal is to achieve a final parenting plan that is in the best interests of the children. The judge may make decisions about routine parenting time, parenting time during school vacations, what school the children will attend, whether each parent is responsible for extracurricular activities, and/or whether either parent can relocate with the children. Even though the children are the focus of the case, the judge will likely never meet them. Instead, it is up to the parties to present enough evidence so that the judge can make a fair and equitable decision.
Contentious and emotional cases
This fall, I was a judicial intern at the Manchester Family Division. I observed a variety of family law proceedings, most of which were extremely contentious and emotional. Now that I am interning at Morneau Law, I am learning that not all family law cases are so adversarial. My semester at the court left me with a skewed perspective because if parties settle their case through alternative dispute resolution such as negotiation, mediation, or the collaborative law process, they might not need a hearing. I recently discovered that sometimes parties do not have the motivation to discuss an agreement with the opposing party until they walk into the courthouse.
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