California’s Family Code requires that when there are contested custody or visitation issues regarding minor children, the parties must attempt to resolve their disputes through mediation before going to court to litigate the issue. The court provides for each litigant to attend a free mediation session when a request is filed for orders relating to child custody or child visitation. This is a valuable service provided to family law litigants and it is important that litigants take full advantage of this helpful and free resource. The court highly encourages parties to reach an agreement on issues such as custody and visitation, because it allows the parties to exercise control over some of the most important areas of their lives, instead of leaving a judge to make decisions for the family.
At mediation, the parties will have the opportunity to talk to the mediator and voice their concerns as well as explain to the mediator why their custody or visitation proposal would be best for their family. Sometimes simply having their voice heard can help parties feel better about the situation and possibly move the issue toward settlement. The mediator will listen to both sides and will help the parties reach an agreement to resolve their custody and visitation issues. It is not a requirement that you reach an agreement at mediation, and in fact many family law litigants are unable to work their issues out with the help of the mediator and are forced to litigate their case in court. Even if an agreement is not reached, mediation can still be a helpful tool to give you some insight as to what the other side is asking for and what the real issues are in the case.
Some parties do not like the idea of being forced to attend mediation. I have had clients tell me they believe mediation will be a waste of time because the other side will not be reasonable or even because they would prefer to have the judge decide the outcome of their case. I encourage my clients to attend with an open mind and most who attend are grateful for the opportunity. Mediation is not therapy, but many parties find the process to be therapeutic.
It is important to enter mediation with an understanding of what will take place and what is expected of you. If you are attending mediation in Los Angeles County, everything said in mediation will be confidential and will not be admissible in court, whereas in Ventura County, the mediator will not only be able to share with the Court what is said in mediation, but will also give a recommendation to the Court. For these reasons it is important to meet with your attorney prior to attending mediation so that you can make the most of this process.
Mediation allows litigants the opportunity to work through their issues with the other side and hopefully negotiate an agreement that makes everyone happy. It is in this respect that the mediation process is so strikingly different from letting the judge decide the outcome. One Los Angeles County bench officer says that he does not mediate, he does not arbitrate, and he does not negotiate – he RULES and that means what he says goes whether you like it or not. In mediation the other side will be encouraged to negotiate with you, but in court you will not be invited to negotiate with the judge. Another Los Angeles County bench officer often reminds parties that they know more about what is best for their children than she does, and if she makes the decision she usually will be doing so without having ever met the children, and likely without ever speaking directly to the parents.
If you go in with an open mind and reasonable expectations, Family Court Mediation Services are a very helpful and important part of the family law process.