How Family Court Differs From Civil and Criminal Courts

In the United States, there are three primary forms of law that apply to the average individual: criminal, civil, and family law. These laws can overlap, but they have significant differences that have led to the development of specialized courts designated for each. 

The differences between courts can be significant. Most people are familiar with civil or criminal court proceedings, but know far less about the family court system. This article discusses the differences between the civil, criminal, and family court systems, and what you should expect from your family law litigation case. 

The Purpose of Criminal and Civil Courts

Civil and criminal courts are dedicated to determining if defendants violated laws or contracts and, if so, how they should be penalized.

Criminal cases entail the state prosecuting parties and can involve intense scrutiny and public attention due to concerns of jeopardized freedoms and imprisonment. The defendant has the right to request a jury of their peers to hear their case. Furthermore, the defendant must be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If proven guilty, they face legal penalties from fines to imprisonment. 

Civil cases on the other hand, entail an individual or organization filing a claim against another party. The Civil court hears various cases, from business contract disputes to personal injury claims, and determines whether one party has wronged another. Civil cases can have jury or bench trials. Civil courts have a lower burden of proof than criminal courts, and if fault is determined, the court will assess compensation to the wronged party. 

The Purpose of Family Court

Family law is significantly different from criminal and most civil law. In most cases, family court matters are not focused on determining fault. Instead, they are intended to preserve and respect the rights of all people involved in complicated legal issues, such as divorces and child custody. They may also determine whether contracts are fair and how they should be fulfilled. 

There is rarely a consideration of penalization within these courts. While one party may be unhappy with a judge’s ruling, divorce decrees and child custody orders are not intended to punish one party. They are designed to identify fair outcomes during disputes between family members. For example, being ordered to pay child support or losing custody of a child is not a punishment to the parent; it is an order intended to support the child’s best interests. 

Family court also does not include the use of juries in any situation because these matters do not include the determination of wrongdoing or assignment of penalties. Instead, the judge hearing the case will consider both parties’ arguments and evidence, then issue a ruling. 

Finally, in California, family court is unique because the participants can choose to hire a private judge instead litigate a matter in a public court. Private judges are intended to lighten the load of public courts by providing an alternative judicial setting. Should all parties agree, they can hire a private judge to resolve their disputes in a more private location without the scheduling complications involved in public courts. 

Understanding the Family Court Process

There are many types of family law cases. You may need to bring matters before a family court if you have disputes regarding the following:

  • Dividing assets in a divorce, legal separation, or dissolution of a domestic partnership
  • Petitioning for a spousal or child support order
  • Formalizing a parenting plan through a child custody order
  • Altering existing custody or support orders

In some cases, you may also need to go to family court to request a restraining order, such as if your parent, child, or partner is abusing you. 

Because of the range of topics handled by these courts, the process can vary significantly. However, the basic structure of a family law case often takes the following shape:

  • One party files a petition in the court with jurisdiction and notifies the other party. 
  • Once the recipient acknowledges the petition, the court initiates the proceedings.
  • The parties may opt to work together to draft documents such as a divorce settlement or parenting plan and present them to the court. If so, the court will typically accept the documents and use them as the foundation for the legally binding court order.
  • If the parties have a dispute they cannot resolve on their own, they may hire a private judge or schedule a hearing in a public court.
  • The parties and their attorneys will present their arguments at the hearing. The judge will then deliberate before issuing a judgment on the matter. 
  • Once all hearings are complete, the rulings will be collected into a final, binding court order, such as a divorce decree or child custody order. 

Resolve Your Family Law Concern With Compassionate Legal Guidance

At the end of the day, divorces and child custody disputes are still legal proceedings. If you have a matter that may require court intervention, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney. The lawyers at Madigan & Lewis, LLP specialize in family law. We are prepared to assist with your divorce, property division, and child custody disputes before public or private judges. Discover how expert legal guidance can make a difference in your case by scheduling your consultation with our experienced attorneys today.