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Complicated California Divorce Rules Being Examined by State Supreme Court


June 29, 2007 — The California Supreme Court is currently deciding whether it should ease the laws for divorce in Contra Costa courts, which have been accused of differentiating too far from state divorce law and not giving people fair shakes during divorce cases.

A Contra Costa Times story detailed the divorce case of Jeffrey Elkins, a man who was so unimpressed and dissatisfied with the way the local courts handled his divorce that he took his complaints to the state Supreme Court.

Elkins chose to represent himself during his divorce with his wife Marilyn and quickly learned several things that he believed hampered his case. Contra Costa divorce courts adhere to a Trial Scheduling Order which basically attempts to speed up divorce trials and keep the courts from getting too bogged down.

With that said, Jeffrey Elkins was surprised to learn that he and his wife were only allowed to provide written declarations about the facts in their case. If Elkins wanted to submit oral testimony as evidence, he would have to first provide written testimony explaining the oral testimony. Elkins also learned that certain information, like emails and documents about his salary, could not be submitted as evidence.

Elkins claims that his divorce trial lasted about five minutes. He was thus quite miffed when a judge authorized the divorce two weeks later. No one testified in the case, including Elkins, who was not cross-examined by his wife's divorce attorney or allowed to do so himself because direct testimony was prohibited under the Contra Costa Trial Scheduling Order.

Elkins said in the story that he couldn't believe how he was not allowed to ask the judge how child support payments were determined in his divorce case and that such determinations could be made following a five-minute trial.

The California Supreme Court is now looking at the Contra Costa Trial Scheduling Order in more detail to determine its validity in divorce cases. It is especially examining the provision that litigants must accompany all exhibits with written explanations of why they should be accepted as evidence on the question of whether it is right to preview such testimony and evidence prior to a trial.

Proponents of the Trial Scheduling Order have said that it makes the divorce process a whole lot smoother by requiring serious and advanced preparation and reducing time spent in family courts. However, this argument is a hard one to explain to Jeffrey Elkins and other opponents who feel that the Trial Scheduling Order creates too many hoops to jump through and ultimately make it harder for people without legal experience (like Elkins) to represent themselves.

The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in this case on May 31st and is expected rule by August 31st.

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