What Happens In A Family Court Trial Involving A Custody Matter?
The purpose of a trial is for the judge to listen to both sides and examine the evidence to determine what is in the best interest of the child. There is a general timeline of events that occurs in trials. First, each attorney begins the case with an opening statement. This is each side’s opportunity to tell the judge what the case is about and provide a general outline of what that side expects their evidence to prove in order for the court to rule in their favor. Once each side has given a brief introduction to their version of the story, then they each will present their evidence. Evidence is presented in the form of witness testimony and also exhibits, which can be documents, photographs, videos or other tangible items.
The petitioner in the case, which is the party that filed the case, goes first and calls their witnesses. After each witness, the opposing side, which is called the respondent, also gets the opportunity to question the petitioner’s witnesses. The guardian ad litem and the judge will also be able to ask their own questions of any witness that is called.
The petitioner will ask each of their witnesses open-ended questions designed to elicit that witness’s story or observation. This is called direct examination. Once the petitioner finishes questioning the witness, the respondent may ask the witness leading questions related to only the direct examination. Leading questions generally can only be responded to with a yes or a no. This style of questions is called the cross-examination. Most people have seen this portion of a trial on television and are likely familiar with cross-examination questions, such as “Isn’t it true that you didn’t pick up the child from school?” Once the petitioner has called all of their witnesses, the process repeats with the respondent calling their own witnesses and the petitioner cross-examining them.
When the respondent rests (meaning they’re done putting on with their evidence), the petitioner may put on rebuttal evidence, which is evidence that contradicts or explains the evidence presented by the respondent. Likewise, the respondent has the opportunity to put on their rebuttal evidence to contradict or explain the rebuttal evidence, so it’s a back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth process for quite a while.
After all of the evidence has been presented, each side may give a closing argument. This is where some attorneys really shine. In their closing argument, an attorney summarizes all of the evidence that was just presented and wraps it up in a beautiful bow that highlights all of the best parts and makes the argument for their position to persuade the court. The petitioner goes first, then the respondent, and then the petitioner gets an opportunity to get the last word in and to briefly respond to the respondent’s closing argument. Usually the guardian ad litem will give a closing argument as well, which often includes what their recommendation is for what is in the best interest of the child.
Usually, the judge will make a decision on the case immediately after each side finishes their closing arguments. Sometimes judges will take a brief recess to review the evidence or case law presented and then will decide the case. In more complicated cases or after a very lengthy trial, a judge may issue a written decision and provide it to the parties at a later date.
Once the final court order is entered with the judge’s decision, the parties must immediately begin following it. If either party is unhappy with the outcome and would like to appeal, they have 10 days to do so after the final order is entered in the juvenile court.
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