Written by Bruce E. Chase, Esq., Co-Chair, Family Law Committee
In March 2007, the Bergen Vicinage was chosen to be one of the four (4) vicinages chosen to implement a Pilot Program for the appointment of Parent Coordinators. (See Notice dated 4/2/07). The Pilot Program was terminated by Notice of the Supreme Court AOC in November 2012. Upon the termination of the Pilot Program, Family Part judges were authorized to appoint PCs in specific cases in any vicinage. (See 2012 Notice). In the Notice terminating the Pilot Program, the court noted that if appointed, the PC must “be qualified to serve either by consent of the parties or by the court in the same manner as other experts.” The court further noted that under the Pilot Program, if the parties could not agree on a particular coordinator, the court could appoint from an approved roster of qualified individuals maintained by the Administrative Office of the Courts. Finally, the court noted that “To qualify for that roster, an individual must be “a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or marriage and family therapist who shall be licensed to practice in the State of New Jersey by the appropriate State board and agencies.” However, once the pilot program ended, so did the approved roster. Noticeably absent from this roster of purportedly qualified individuals were LAWYERS!
Anecdotally, since the termination of the Pilot Program and despite the lack of any “approved roster” or standard/minimum qualifications, Family Part judges continued to appoint PCs and most of those appointments were lawyer-appointments. Similarly, the orders appointing PCs often included widely divergent provisions regarding the issues to be presented to the PC, the powers of the PC, and the manner in which the decisions of the PC could be challenged in court.
TAKE NOTICE, the day of rather surprisingly amorphous rules, procedures, powers and provisions for PCs and their services has ended. It is time to familiarize yourself with:
NJ SUPREME COURT AOC DIRECTIVE 18-23
“PARENTING COORDINATION PROGRAM-GUIDELINES; FORMS”
If you still have your copy of the New Jersey Law Journal from September 11, 2013, the Directive in all its detail, can be found verbatim. I suspect it can be found on the New Jersey Judiciary Website. This short article is intended to provide a short overview of the new Directive and is not a substitute for a full reading and consideration of the entire Directive.
1. It became effective September 1, 2023.
2. A PC can only be appointed in an FM or FD matter and only after the entry of a pendente lite order or a temporary or final custody order, and a parenting plan. (Emphasis added). (Query; will a consent order providing for temporary or pendente lite custody be sufficient? Will a Parenting Plan incorporated into a consent order suffice?)
3. It defines a PC as a “neutral person appointed by the court to facilitate the timely resolution of day-to-day parenting issues that arise within the context of family life when the parties cannot resolve issues on their own”.
4. A standard form of order has been promulgated by the AOC.
5. To be selected by the Court, the PC must be on the “Judiciary Roster of State-wide Approved parent Coordinators”. The Parties may choose a PC not on the “roster”, but the person selected must nevertheless meet the qualifications and must submit the approved form of application for admission to the Roster. BTW, the Directive notes that a training program is “being planned”.
6. There are three (3) mandatory provisions regarding the “Authority” of the PC that must be included in the order of appointment. The order shall: (A) authorize the PC to facilitate discussion between the parties; (B) authorize the PC to make recommendations to the parties in the event the parties cannot reach an agreement; and (C) indicate the PC’s recommendations will be binding upon the parties unless a party objects and then files a motion or Order to Show Cause. (emphasis added).
7. The PC shall not make recommendations on financial issues or to modify legal or physical custody.
8. The Directive lists 14 separate categories of parenting time issues about which the PC may make recommendations including pick-up and drop-off logistics, childcare arrangements, minor changes in parenting time schedules, dates for summer vacations, scheduling phone/text/e-mail communications, activity issues, referral to other professionals, travel and passport arrangements, consistency in discipline, and “all other issues” agreed upon by the parties and the PC to help effectuate resolution of custody and parenting time issues.
DO YOU WANT TO BE A PARENT COORDINATOR?
If you want to be considered for appointment or continue appointments that heretofore have been coming your way, to now qualify as a PC you must be either:
1. A retired Superior Court Judge or a currently licensed attorney;
2. A mental health professional; or an
3. ADR professional.
And what qualifications must these 3 groups of professionals have?
1. Forty (40) hours of training. (Remember, the training program “is being planned”. The program is to include 16 hours of specialized PC training;
2. Continued training of four (4) hours per year;
3. Domestic violence training. If the PC is to be appointed in a case involving a DV restraining order, the PC must also have completed additional training on DV components.
But, a non-roster PC can be selected only with the consent of the parties, but not in a matter involving a DV restraining order. If the parties choose a non-roster PC, the chosen PC is exempt from the training program requirements and certain conflicts of interest may be waived.
There are procedural protections:
1. Both parties must be given an opportunity to be heard;
2. The PC shall have no communication with the court unless agreed upon by the parties or unless required by court rule, law or the order of appointment;
3. The order of appointment shall provide for a term limit;
4. The PC must document in writing all agreements made by the parties and all recommendations made by the PC;
5. The PC’s retainer agreement must include provisions regarding their role, limitations and fees;
6. The PC “shall” hold an initial meeting with the parties;
7. There is a procedure to file a complaint against the PC. Interestingly, the complaint is first presented to the PC who must respond in writing. If the complaint is not resolved, the party complaining may file a motion with the court;
8. The order of appointment and the PC’s retainer agreement, shall set forth the manner in which the PC’s fees and expenses are to be determined. The parties “shall” pay the apportioned percentage either as agreed upon or determined by the court and set forth in the order of appointment;
9. The PCs retainer agreement must include specific provisions. Billing statements must be issued no less frequently than every ninety (90) days.
PCs may be terminated by consent. The PC may terminate services if fees are not being paid in a timely manner. If not by consent, a PC can be terminated upon motion if the PC “exceeded their mandate, acted in a manner inconsistent with the approved procedures or violated professional conduct, provided the complaint procedure has been utilized”. If the PC seeks to withdraw, the court is to grant that request “absent extraordinary circumstances”.
There are guidelines dealing with conflicts of interest and impartiality.
Communications by the parties or their attorneys with the PC are not, repeat, are not, confidential. All communications by third parties to the PC are not, repeat, are not, confidential unless the communicator has a privileged relationship with the child (in which case, the issue of privilege and the extent of the privilege is to be addressed by the parties and the PC). If not resolved, the court must adjudicate the claim of privilege. The PC is permitted to communicate ex parte with counsel, the parties or their attorneys, or mutually agreed upon third parties to obtain information but that shall be disclosed to the other party/counsel “as determined by the PC”. The PC may meet with the child only upon express written consent of the parties if the PC believes it will aid in appropriate recommendations. The parties may initiate communications with the PC on a one-to-one basis, but those one-to-one communications “shall be made known to the other party as soon thereafter as possible”. All written communications, written materials, tape recordings, and/or electronic data to the PC shall require copies to the other party unless the PC determines otherwise.
CAUTION; DO NOT RELY UPON MY PARAPHRASING; READ THE DIRECTIVE!