A common question that clients ask is, “What's going to happen at the first hearing?” The following are some tips about what to expect.
People using the litigation system to resolve marital and family law disputes will generally face at least one or two days in court. The first setting is stressful and is often one of the most important events in a case. The results of the hearing or negotiations will establish the framework under which the case will proceed. While the orders can be modified later, it is often true that the parties must operate under the original temporary orders until the final orders are signed by the judge. Justifiably, parties want and need to know what to expect in court when their case gets started.
1. The case could be postponed on the first setting. If one party has just received notice and has not had time to hire an attorney, and asks for time to hire an attorney, the courts in Tarrant County will almost automatically grant a continuance and reset the case a week to two weeks later. If there is a temporary restraining order, it is normally continued in place until the reset date. Sometimes other orders are made temporarily, if necessary. Usually, the judge will not order one party or the other to vacate the residence without a hearing, so that issue is usually postponed as well.
2. There are usually extensive negotiations. Experienced attorneys will normally immediately begin talking with the other side to try to reach agreements on as many issues as possible. That is the sign of a smart lawyer looking after the client's best interests, rather than an indication that the lawyer is weak. The parties get better results if they participate in the decision-making, rather than leaving everything up to a judge. Negotiations are also necessary because there is not time for the judge to conduct hearings in every case set each day. Good attorneys are very familiar with what the judges usually do in similar cases, so they know what can realistically be achieved.
3. Plan on being there all morning. Parties are instructed to show up at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., and courts will start up some time after that — each court is a little different.
4. The initial hearings in most family law cases in Tarrant County are in the Associate Judge's court. There is an Associate Judge for each District Judge. The District Judges hear most final hearings and leave the temporary hearings to the Associate Judges.
5. Attorneys usually meet with the judge to discuss issues in the case. Sometimes, attorneys can work out all the temporary issues and just present an agreement to the judge. More often, the attorneys resolve many issues, but must meet with the judge to get an advisory ruling or a suggestion on how to deal with something. Meeting with the judge will usually save time for everyone.
6. Hearings are most often informal. To help save time and move cases through the system, temporary hearings (if held) are usually very informal. Each judge has his or her own style, but generally the judge will let the attorneys summarize the situation and then the parties will get to answer questions or make statements. Documents can be introduced into evidence if necessary. Formal hearings can be held, but if they are expected to take a considerable amount of time, they are generally specially set in the near future. Even then, most judges usually won't allow enough time to put on really extensive evidence at a temporary hearing.
7. How to Prepare: It's really helpful for each party to have thought through what his/her underlying goals and needs are, and these should be discussed with the attorney. Many people aren't thinking too far into the future, but it can really be helpful. Attorneys need to know what their clients want to accomplish so they can prepare for court and negotiations. The parties also need to provide basic information to the attorneys about financial issues, such as income and expenses, debts and any problems requiring immediate attention. The parties need to have parenting plans in mind covering how the children should be cared for and shared during the court process and after. Each party's attorney can provide a list of information the court and attorneys will want to see. Gathering information will become a regular part of the litigation process, so everyone should expect it and get used to it.
The above comments give some idea of what to expect at the first court hearing in family law cases in Tarrant County, Texas. Each party in a family law case should consult early and often with their attorney to prepare for court.