Judge vacancies in New Jersey due to judicial retirements are at an all-time high, with nearly 22% of judgeships vacant (with a 15% vacancy rate among NJ Superior Court judges). In fact, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner told the New Jersey State Bar Association in May that there are 75 vacancies on the trial court bench out of 433 trial court positions. Judge Rabner noted that there should be no more than 25 or 30 vacancies “for the Judiciary to be able to best serve the public.” The Supreme Court has since filled 9 vacancies; however, many more remain.
This is exacerbated by significant staff vacancies, a judicial nomination process that has not kept pace, and the court backlog from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is now a wait of up to four years to schedule a family court trial in New Jersey.
For families, this situation can create emotional and financial harm. Many may be stewing in the contentious home environment of a difficult pending divorce; others have funds tied up in the litigation, forcing them to make tough decisions about funding their retirement plans or saving for the post-divorce home.
No cases scheduled in many NJ county courts
According to Jeralyn L. Lawrence, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, divorce trials are completely absent from the court calendars in Atlantic, Cape May, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Morris, Passaic, Somerset and Warren counties. In Bergen, Monmouth and Sussex counties, it could take six months from filing the first motion until a divorce trial is scheduled.
This backlog issue is so serious that Assemblyman Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic) introduced a bill to allow more retired judges to return temporarily to the bench, to prevent further delays to family and civil trials in Bergen County. In Essex County, where our office is located, there are currently 6,670 cases pending across all family court dockets.
Alternatives to NJ divorce court: arbitration and mediation
Rather than placing their lives on hold for the long term, litigants involved in family law matters—especially those in high-conflict divorces, custody battles or with pressing personal issues that require faster resolution—can choose two alternate routes: arbitration or mediation. Both methods are more expedient; cases can be resolved within months and save couples on court fees and the expense of retaining attorneys for such a protracted period of time.
Benefits of divorce/family law arbitration in NJ
In arbitration, a judge (usually retired) or a family law attorney experienced in this area act as the arbitrators. The arbitrator—in the role of a judge—is a neutral third party that hears both sides of the matter and makes a ruling. While arbitrators follow the rule of law, they are hearing the case outside of the courts, so divorcing couples can avoid a trial, maintain a higher level of confidentiality, and the process is less formal. The parties agree on a set schedule to meet for a specified amount of time to discuss all the issues. It is also less expensive than going to trial, because the process can be tailored to the parties’ specific circumstances.
The divorcing couple can choose either binding or non-binding arbitration which will impact the parties’ ability to appeal.
Benefits of divorce/family law mediation in NJ
Mediation is more flexible and allows for more creative solutions since a judge is not involved and allows the parties to cultivate a resolution. Further, it is not a legally binding process. The mediator—who is typically a family law attorney or retired judge—serves as a facilitator for the divorcing couple, who come to agreements about custodial arrangements, parenting time, division of property, alimony, child support, and other related matters.
The family law attorneys representing both parties advise clients on types of settlements that are available to them and fair, and the implications of these potential settlements to spouses and children. Ultimately, the couple—guided by the mediator—decides how to move forward by mutual agreement.
Mediation is used by many New Jersey couples before, during and even after they divorce, in cases where they plan to file for uncontested divorce but need to work out issues of spousal and child support, and division of marital property and debts. Even if they end up in a New Jersey family law court, a judge may recommend the couple enter mediation to settle custody or financial disputes.
NJ family law attorney
At Curcio Mirzaian Sirot LLC, we understand how difficult even the most amicable divorce can sometimes be. We offer alternative dispute resolution, as well as court representation in divorce proceedings and all family law matters to bring about the best outcomes for you and your family.