From his seat in family court, Ventura County Superior Court Judge John R. Smiley has seen divorcing couples claw and tear into each other with such ferocity that it's hard to imagine they were ever in love.
Smiley knows there is a better way to end a marriage. With the assistance of the county bar association, he has taken the lead to educate family law litigants about other methods of resolving their disputes.
Starting today, couples filing for divorce or legal separation in Ventura County will receive a one-page letter, available in English and Spanish, that provides a menu of alternatives to traditional litigation and warns that the old duke-it-out approach may not be in the best interests of splitting spouses or their children.
The letter provides information about court-sponsored workshops and self-help centers, private mediation, arbitration, collaborative law and so-called "unbundled" services in which a lawyer is hired for a limited purpose, such as drafting an agreement or appearing in court.
Smiley and lawyers involved in drafting the letter hope it will provide litigants with options they may not know are available and lead to swifter, less-combative separations.
"There are truly other ways to do this that do not bring you into this building, that do not put you in a public setting, and that do not force you to denigrate your former spouse or mother or father of your child," Smiley said. "I just want to encourage people, to the extent possible, that you can resolve differences in ways that will certainly be more satisfying."
The letter will be given to individuals when they file for divorce or legal separation, and will also be distributed to those filing responding papers. The flier will also be available at court self-help centers in Ventura, Oxnard and Simi Valley and on the court's website.
The letter is one of several steps taken by the courts in recent years to assist litigants trying to navigate the judicial system, including providing forms online and running legal access centers targeting primarily low-income individuals and families who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.
Smiley said similar steps have been taken in other counties in recent years to make family law matters move more swiftly and with less conflict.
Court statistics show there were 3,662 divorce filings in Ventura County in fiscal year 2001-2002, a slight increase over the previous year when there were 3,512 filings. Because divorce cases can take years to resolve, court administrators hope that steering litigants to mediation or other approaches will ease the caseload and result in quicker resolutions.
In this case, the letter going to divorcing spouses was suggested by a group of private attorneys who practice alternative dispute resolution.
Attorney Edward T. Buckle, who serves as chairman of the bar's mediation, arbitration and collaborative committee, said the group's intent was not to boost business for themselves but "to make people understand there is a better way to resolve their problems other than going to court to fight it out."
Buckle has handled family law matters for more than two decades. In the past three years, he has shifted his Ventura practice almost exclusively to collaborative law, a form of mediation in which couples pledge not to go to court and instead work with lawyers to resolve issues that typically arise in divorce cases. The goal is to foster an atmosphere that is collegial, not adversarial, in which couples can reach their own settlement terms.
"The adversarial system just makes people's lives worse at a time when the last thing they need to do is continue injuring themselves," said Oxnard attorney David Schwartz, who became interested in the collaborative concept while attending a family law seminar in 1999.
Schwartz said he hoped the information contained in the letter would spare some families from court battles. "There is no greater service that the family law community, and I mean judges and lawyers, can do than to make people aware of the fact that they don't have to go through this ugly destructive process," he said.