June 2, 2024
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June 2, 2024
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Interview With Family Court Judge On Divorce Mediation and Family Court

Part I

The following excerpt is from an interview that I had with the Honorable Ronny Jo Siegal (Ret.), who presided as a family court judge in Passaic County and then in Bergen County for over eight years prior to her retirement (as required by NJ law, at age 70). For more information, see the full interview at: https://youtu.be/PKZBijbBML4

Adam Berner [Adam]: I might be off by a percentage or so, but last I checked, it’s my understanding that 99% of all divorces in New Jersey get settled without a trial. Why do you think that number is so high?

Judge Ronny Jo Siegal [Judge Siegal]: I think, in part, when you carefully examine the judicial process, it takes a very long time. As good as a judge may be, the judge has hundreds of cases on his calendar. So when you appear, you appear. You wait. The judge calls your case. Weeks go by. You appear again. Cases can take well in excess of a year. So I think people are mindful of wanting to move forward.

Sometimes people say it’s too costly to go to court. I’m sitting here with my counsel. He’s waiting like I’m waiting (to be called by the judge). I’m being charged on an hourly basis. Isn’t it better to put that money in the family, back in our savings, or if we’re raising our children, in our own bank account? So I think there’s a pragmatic recognition that you can do things quicker. You can do things more cost-effectively if you try to resolve it.

I think the other aspect of mediation is that you have control over the outcome of the case. When you can’t resolve your case, judges frankly get upset. They’ve given you a lot of chances along the way to settle your case. And if you can’t, then they say, well, you know what? This is how I think it should be called. And so a third party, a stranger to your life, is now going to call a case as they see fit. Is that what you really want? I don’t think so.

And lastly, judges can’t be as creative as parties can be in the mediation process. Judges are governed by statute and by case law. And if what they want to do is different from what the law provides, they can’t accomplish it. In mediation, you can talk about creative ways. Mediators can often utilize some creative skills with the parties to come up with an answer that might be amenable to both sides.

Adam: Let’s say there is a couple that is considering different options on how to get divorced. They are angry, and they feel they want to go to court. And they ask you, Judge Siegal, what do you recommend?

Judge Siegal: I’ve never been unhappy with the judicial process. There’s a real benefit by going to court in one sense because you do have the judge who wants you to resolve your case and move you forward. What you lack is control over the outcome. So from my vantage point, I would say to people that if they do want to have input upon what occurs and not abandon their control over the outcome, mediation may not be a perfect answer, but it’ll be closer than what a judge may do. I do favor alternative dispute resolution if they can do it.

Adam: So you mentioned control and cost. Are there other advantages to mediation compared to going to court?

Judge Siegal: Well, I do think it expedites the process. If you are committed to resolving your case, you can schedule mediation in rapid succession. You could have one, two or three sessions, and you can then conclude and resolve all the issues. Isn’t that wonderful? That could be weeks as opposed to months or years. And I must say, the real victims or one of the victims in this process are the children. Assuming you are that family that has children, and you’re negotiating parenting time, your children are very much aware that you’re fighting with one another. And that is harmful to them and difficult for them.

So if nothing else, going through a process that’s more collaborative and a process that avoids as much friction as possible is a better way to go.

Adam: I often hear or hear from traditional lawyers that if a couple was able to mediate, then they probably wouldn’t need to get divorced; they could just deal with their marriage. And the fact that they’re getting divorced suggests that mediation will be futile. How would you respond to that?

Judge Siegal: I would say that’s not an accurate assessment. I think I have to leave it to those parties as to why they feel they want to go forward and no longer be together. I can’t measure the rightness and wrongness of that determination. But it’s my hope that they want to be fair, not only to themselves but to their partner, to come up with a solution. And this is really the best way to do that, to do the mediation process.

Adam: So a couple is looking to save money, to be in control, and they’re looking to go to mediation. And, as some couples do, they see mediation as a one-stop shop to get divorced. What would you tell that couple who is looking to mediate without each having their own lawyers?

Judge Siegal: Well, I am not a fan. In fact, what I say is that this is often your first divorce. Nowadays, it’s a little bit more common. It could even be your second divorce. But at the end of the day, think about that. You are making a decision that affects the remainder of your life. It affects you, your spouse and your children. And you haven’t done it before. And you think that it’s wise not to get good guidance on the law. Whereas you have available attorneys who have been there and done that for a long period of time. The law is complex. And although I’m a big advocate of being knowledgeable, you cannot become your own doctor, and you can’t become your own lawyer.

From my vantage point, you want somebody who you can speak with. You want somebody of whom you can ask your questions and who invites you to ask questions. And you want somebody who is respected by the judges and respected by their peers.

Stay tuned for Part II, where Adam Berner and Judge Siegal discuss Collaborative Law, which cases should not go to mediation, and which process Judge Siegal prefers.

Adam Berner specializes in mediation and collaborative family law, is the owner of the Berner Law & Mediation Group, with offices in Hackensack and Manhattan. As a leading practitioner in the family dispute resolution field for the past 30 years he has served as President of the Family & Divorce Mediation Council of NY and Founding President of the NJ Collaborative Law Group. In addition to his private practice, Adam is a mediation trainer and adjunct professor at YU’s Cardozo School of Law, where he teaches mediation and collaborative law. Additional information can be found at www.MediationOffices.com.

Judge Siegal is currently a partner at the law firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, where she heads up the family law dispute resolution department, serving as a mediator, arbitrator, and consulting family law expert. For more information, see https://www.pashmanstein.com/team-hon-ronny-jo-siegal.

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