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The Family Files: Family Law Committee Report-Status of the Family Part (12/10/21)

BRUCE EVAN CHASE, ESQ.
Bergen County Bar Association
Co-Chair, Family Law Committee

On December 10, 2021, Judge Melchionne agreed to meet with me and to provide an update of certain information important to the Family Part and the practicing Bar.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE MATTERS
First appearances continue to be conducted via Zoom platform. However, all other proceedings are now being conducted “live” in the courthouse. The change from “Zoom” proceedings was in part a reaction to litigants participating in online, video proceedings while in a car, in a bathroom, and in a coffee shop!

To deal with the domestic violence backlog, in addition to Judge Antoniewicz and Judge Janeczko regularly assigned to FV, Judge Francois has a domestic violence additional assignment one day per week. The FM Judges were enlisted to assist by covering FV calendars as needed and maintaining the cases they are assigned.

DIVORCE MATTERS/FM-DOCKET NUMBERS
Judge Melchionne believes and statistics support his belief that “in-person” Intensive Settlement Conferences are more successful. As of January 1, 2022, each Judge will again handle their own calendar for ISCs. Each judge will continue to manage and process their individual calendars. Judge Melchionne and others are now scheduling ISC’s “in person”.

GENERAL
Pursuant to AOC Director, as of August 31, 2021, Judges must be physically present in the courthouse as does staff, but supporting staff may work remotely one day per week.

In the calendar year 2022, four judges in Bergen, not necessarily now assigned to the Family Part, will retire because of attaining mandatory retirement age in 2022. Without taking into consideration the four anticipated retirements, Bergen is now “short” six judges of which family is short two.

From a “backlog” perspective, the FM calendar is fairing better than the FD and FV calendars. There are four “FM” Judges. In addition to their “regular calendar, they are assisting with FV as noted above. Judges Mecca, DiBiasi, and Guida have been relieved of their Post Judgment assignments so as to assist in FV and Judge Melchionne has taken those numbers.

Judge Bottinelli has retired. He is however completing one case that is on remand after several prior judges in other counties, upon being sued in federal court by one of the parties in the case, recused themselves.
In Bergen, unlike other vicinages, attorneys with settled/uncontested matters can request dates for uncontested hearings with scheduling arranged in short order.

When asked what the Bar can do to assist the Bergen Family Part, Judge Melchionne offered these few suggestions:

1. File fewer motions. While we’ve heard this before, it bears repeating, try, in writing, to resolve issues that may or will become motion issues. First, it may well reflect which Party is acting in good faith but more importantly, it may narrow or limit issues for motion practice, even if it can’t avoid it entirely.

2. Consider arbitration. In light of Covid, arbitration may well be a more viable option. Being able to choose dates certain, times certain, avoiding most waiting time, are attractive inducements. Look for an upcoming BCBA-ICLE program on Family Part Arbitration.

3. Mediate before filing. While the parties will not enjoy the benefit of the “two-hour for free” rule, mediating before pleadings are filed and mediating issues that may lead to motion practice, often leads to more focused issue identification, resolution of issues of lesser importance, and improved communications.

CAVEAT
While the Omicron variant of the Covid virus continues to spread, I suspect and expect that the AOC may begin scaling back in-person court proceedings, making this report stale. I, therefore, urge you all to be vigilant for updated reports both from the AOC and your/our local Bar Associations.