What Can I Expect in Court?

By Bob Matteucci
Attorney

Television shows and movies about the legal process often culminate in a dramatic courtroom scene where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and everyone walks out the door satisfied that justice was served. Outside of Hollywood, the legal system works a little bit differently.

Most family law disputes in the Albuquerque area are not resolved in public trials. Instead, families work with their attorneys to negotiate divorce settlements, child custody agreements, and support payments behind closed doors. Those plans are then presented to a New Mexico family court judge for approval. This system gives families more control over the outcome of their case, and the privacy they deserve during what is often one of the most difficult times of their life. 

Why Aren’t Family Law Disputes Litigated? 

In the past, New Mexico residents who wanted to file for divorce did so under New Mexico’s fault-based divorce law, which required them to air their dirty laundry in public. 

The court wouldn’t grant a divorce unless the person wanting one could prove in open court that their spouse had treated them cruelly, abandoned them, or committed adultery. The evidence presented was often salacious, which drew the attention of local reporters eager to publish details about the case in their paper. 

Today, New Mexico only allows residents to file no-fault divorces. You simply inform the court you and your former partner are incompatible and want to separate. Judges typically do not hear evidence of misconduct or misbehavior because couples are allowed to negotiate a divorce settlement outside of court and only appear at the end of the case to have their agreement approved by the court. 

Bob estimates that over 90% of the cases he works on are resolved out of court and simply approved by a judge. 

If an amicable agreement cannot be reached, the judge will hold hearings and make a ruling. But these hearings, though intense, are nothing like Hollywood portrays. 

The Vanishing Trial

Family law is not the only area of the law that is seeing a dramatic reduction in the number of cases where a trial is necessary. 

A few years ago the American Bar Association commissioned a study on what it called “the vanishing jury trial.” Based on a survey of 1,460 lawyers and judges from 2016 to 2019, the authors concluded that certain aspects of our modern legal system discourage jury trials. 

A look at the data on the number of trials occurring revealed, “The percentage of federal lawsuits decided by jury trial dropped from 5.5% in 1962 to 0.8% in 2013. The percentage of federal criminal cases decided by jury trial dropped from 8.2% in 1962 to 3.6% by 2013.”

Of course family law disputes are not tried by jury, but this is just another bit of info on what going to court actually means in this day and age. 

Serving Families with Dignity & Compassion

Most couples in New Mexico are able to get divorced or resolve other family law disputes without having their lives put on trial for all the world to see. However, a divorce is still something that must be granted by a judge, so a judge must review and approve all divorce documents before they will sign the documents and order the parties divorced.

In the rare circumstances where a family cannot come to an amicable agreement that ends their dispute, they may end up resolving their differences in open court. This is increasingly uncommon, as judges push families to mediate their disputes behind closed doors. 
If you have questions about how your case may be handled, you should reach out to discuss the details with Attorney Bob Matteucci.

About the Author
Bob Matteucci is a board certified family law specialist, with a statewide practice in the area of divorce and family law.