Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Case Law Development: Divorce Courts may not Prohibit Oral Testimony

The California Supreme Court has invalidated a county court rule that required divorce trials be submitted on written declarations and prohibited oral testimony except in “unusual
circumstances.”  The rule also required parties to establish in their pretrial declarations the admissibility of all exhibits they sought to introduce at trial. A divorce litigant whose evidence was excluded because he had failed to establish its admissibility in the pretrial stage challenged both sets of rules. 

The court acknowledged that local courts have rulemaking authority, however, "local courts may not create their own rules of evidence and procedure in conflict with statewide statutes."  Avoiding the constitutional issues presented by the case, the court analyzed the statewide evidence and procedure statutes, the caselaw concerning hearsay admissibility, and the history of trial procedure in the state, concluding that the local rule conflicted with these statewide evidence rules regarding hearsay.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the local rules were designed in response to increasing case loads and limited judicial resources.  However, on balance, that did not justify the violation of basic trial procedures.

That a procedure is efficient and moves cases through the system is admirable, but even more important is for the courts to provide fair and accessible justice. In the absence of a legislative decision to create a system by which a judgment may be rendered in a contested marital dissolution case without a trial conducted pursuant to the usual rules of evidence, we do not view respondent’s curtailment of the rights of family law litigants as justified by the goal of efficiency. ... While the speedy disposition of cases is desirable, speed is not always compatible with justice. Actually, in its use of courtroom time the present judicial process seems to have its priorities confused. Domestic relations litigation, one of the most important and sensitive tasks a judge faces, too often is given the low-man-on-thetotem-pole treatment.” 

Regarding the court's sanction of excluding evidence for failure to establish admissibility in pretrial proceedings, the court concluded that "The trial court abused its discretion ... by excluding the bulk of his evidence simply because he failed, prior to trial, to file a declaration establishing the admissibility of his trial evidence.... The sanction was disproportionate and inconsistent with the policy favoring determination of cases on their merits."

Elkins v. Superior Court (California Supreme Court August 6, 2007)

Opinion online  (last visited August 13, 2007 bgf)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/family_law/2007/08/case-law-deve-8.html

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