Family law arbitration is a concept whose time is way, way overdue. But, what is it?
Arbitration is the private, consensual submission of a dispute to a person (the arbitrator) whom the parties select and regulate by contract. The arbitrator’s job is to make a decision (called an “award”) that is usually final, instead of a judge in a public trial in court trial. Arbitration generally is regulated by a state statute called the Massachusetts Uniform Arbitration Act (“MUAA”). The MUAA was created for business. It encourages companies and the people and other companies with whom they do business, to look outside of the courts for cost-efficient, expeditious, private and final resolution of disputes. The business world embraced this approach, and business arbitration is very common.
Over the years, as the Probate and Family Courts have become more difficult, less efficient and more costly to navigate to conclusion, individuals and their divorce lawyers have occasionally looked to arbitration as an alternative to court. As a result of people doing this, a small body of law has developed here. The appellate courts have generally looked favorably on this remedy, which after all, helps to divert cases from an overburdened public court system. The MUAA, which is called a “commercial” law, has been applied to family law in ways that are somewhat oblique. We will discuss this in a later blog entry, when we take up “Why We Need a Family Law Arbitration Statute”.
Here’s how Family Law Arbitration works. The parties pick their arbitrator. Arbitrators are usually experienced lawyers, including retired judges. The parties choose someone whom they and/or their lawyers believe has skills, reputation for integrity and expertise. The ability to pick an arbitrator based on his or her skill sets is unique to arbitration as compared to court, where judges are assigned to cases at random. Every judge has to be a “generalist” because he or she needs to hear every kind of case that finds its way into court.
After selecting the arbitrator, the parties and the lawyers themselves decide what part of their case will go to the arbitrator, which can be any part or all of it. They choose the time of the hearing. They decide the rules and information that will be used. The procedures can be as formal as court, or decidedly more relaxed. The parties direct the arbitrator when they want a decision to be made. They define the scope and kind of decision that the arbitrator will make. Finally, they agree on where the hearing will take place.
When the hearing occurs, the parties have the arbitrator’s sole attention: no emergencies intrude as happens in the courtroom. Even the length of the lunch break is determined by the parties themselves. If the parties want to have a long day, they do; if they prefer a shorter day, that is their decision, too. When the decision comes, it is within the time demanded by the parties.