Justice is such a noble ideal, and is considered part of the bedrock foundation of our society. From our founding documents to our pop culture, Americans feel confident that we have the finest system of justice in the world. We know that sometimes our courts fall short, but as a people we want to believe that fairness, or justice, is the ultimate goal. If someone is accused of a crime and can’t afford a lawyer, we even provide a public defender, because our society says that money shouldn’t stand in the way of justice. Again, a noble ideal, but what of those accused who aren’t wealthy, but can’t quite qualify as poor? Too bad for them. Our system leaves them hanging, and all too often they must choose between bankrupting their family and risking jail or prison time, or accepting a plea bargain even if they’re innocent. The choice can clear out a crowded court docket, improve the prosecutor’s case clearance numbers, and keep the legal costs down for the accused, but now a life is ruined because of a conviction obtained purely for expediency. Justice? Doesn’t sound like it!
And what about Family Law Court? No public defenders here. Ideally, justice in Family Court is supposed to be what’s best for the children and fair for the parents. Again, lofty goals that we as a society believe in. But those goals are not what Family Court is actually about. A retired Family Law judge, who still serves as a mediator in Family Law Settlement conferences, recently said that Family Law Court is not about justice, not about fairness, not about what is best for the children, not even about the evidence. It’s purely about playing by the rules. And if you’re not represented by an experienced lawyer, or if you’re trying to represent yourself? Well, too bad for you. In truth, Family Law Court is about playing the game, and who plays it best. Bottom line, the one with the most money to spend on a contentious lawyer is the one that wins.
Long ago, when the traditional family unit was the norm and children of divorced families were a small minority, perhaps this standard was ignored because so few people were hurt by it. But today, the traditional family is becoming less and less common. Check out any classroom of children and you’ll find that a majority of them have experienced the pain and inequities of divorce. Courts don’t care, lawyers won’t touch a case without a hefty retainer, and family’s savings are decimated trying to pay legal bills that never seem to stop. And if you think there are resources available to help people without money for attorneys, think again. Pro bono legal help for Family Court just doesn’t exist in any appreciable amount.
Why should we as a society care? Well, if the concept of justice is truly supposed to be one of the basic values of our society, perhaps we should reevaluate how justice might be achieved in Family Law Courts, rather than letting decisions be purchased by the highest bidder. Our children aren’t stupid, and far too many of them become cynical after seeing it happen to their families every single day. Americans are familiar with Superman, and his saying “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Perhaps there is more truth there than we thought — there’s truth and justice, and then there’s the American Way! Maybe one day they will become the same in our court systems, but it won’t happen until enough people care about changing the system completely.