Informal Trial Format Assists Self-Represented Litigants in Family Cases
by Vincent Funari
PHOENIX (May 16, 2023) – People without a lawyer may now choose an easier, less overwhelming way to litigate their family court case.
The Family Department of the Maricopa County Superior Court, along with Pima and Graham County Superior Court, recently launched an Informal Family Law Trial (“IFLT”) pilot project to help family court litigants who do not have a lawyer navigate the court system. By condensing the trial format and allowing judges to guide individuals through the trial process, the Court expects to lessen the burden on self-represented litigants and resolve cases in a timelier manner.
As many as 70% or more of all litigants in the Family Court proceedings are self-represented, the highest number among all departments in the Court, by far the highest percentage among all departments in the Court.
“These individuals not only have to grapple with the challenges they are encountering in their lives, but they must also navigate what is a complicated litigation process,” Family Department Presiding Judge Bruce R. Cohen said. “Without being law trained, it’s incredibly challenging for people to represent themselves. Yet under the law, self-represented litigants are held to the same legal standard in presenting their cases as attorneys. The Informal Trial process reduces the complexity by having the assigned judge solicit from each party the evidence and information needed for the judge to properly rule on the case. This will eliminate the additional stress that self-represented litigants experience as a result of not knowing how to present the evidence to support the claims in their case.”
Under Arizona Supreme Court Rule 77.1, both parties in the case must agree to an Informal Trial instead of a traditional trial. In an Informal Trial, the judge guides the entire process. The party who initiated the case is questioned first, with the judge asking the relevant questions. Then the other party is given the same opportunity. There is no cross-examination and only minimal need for legal objections.
“Litigants will not have to understand rules of evidence in order to present their case,” Judge Cohen said. “Exhibits that the judge is to consider are admitted into evidence with greater ease.”
Ultimately, the judge decides the importance of what each person says, and the evidence provided. Most often, the parties are the only witnesses. If the judge agrees that other witnesses are needed to provide additional information, the additional witnesses may be called.
“Our court system has as a core value – the need for there to be true access to justice. We believe that this new informal trial process furthers that goal for those who are addressing family-related legal issues by simplifying the process for them,” Judge Cohen said.
For more information on the Family Department, please visit: https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/family/.
Also, additional resources and court forms for self-represented litigants can be found at https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/llrc/family-court-forms/.
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The Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County is comprised of Superior Court, Adult Probation and Juvenile Probation, which includes juvenile detention. The Judicial Branch in Maricopa County is the fourth largest trial court system in the nation and, along with its 3,000 employees, is dedicated to providing a safe, fair and impartial forum for resolving disputes, enhancing access to services, and providing innovative, evidence-based practices that improve the safety of the community and ensure the public’s trust and confidence in the Judicial Branch. For more information, visit superiorcourt.maricopa.gov.