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Who Is (Isn't) Present During Hearings in Family Court?

Posted by J. Benjamin Stevens | Apr 21, 2011 | 0 Comments

If you are facing a hearing in Family Court, you may wonder who will be in the courtroom during your hearing. Many clients ask this question, while others certainly wonder about it.  Hopefully this article will help provide some answers to this question and ease your mind.

Certain people are always present in the Courtroom during hearings in Family Court:

  • Judge :: The Family Court Judge presides over all hearings, and he/she determines when hearings actually begin and end and control what takes place during them.  Judges in the Family Court in South Carolina are required to wear black robes, and they sit on an elevated bench in the Courtroom.
  • Litigants :: The Plaintiff and Defendant are both entitled to be present during all hearings in their case.  The litigants sit at a table with their respective attorneys. The Plaintiff customarily sits at the table on the right (when facing the bench), and the Defendant sits at the table on the left.
  • Attorneys :: If the parties are represented by counsel, their attorneys will be present with them during all hearings.  At Motion hearings, the attorney argues the case on behalf of his client and presents Affidavits to support his position.  At final hearings, the attorney presents his client's case through the testimony of live witnesses and exhibits that are introduced into evidence.
  • Court Reporter :: A transcript is made of all hearings in Family Court by a certified Court Reporter, who is assigned to that Courtroom by Court Administration in Columbia, SC.  Court Reporters are required to track everything that is said during all hearings and to do so by two separate, simultaneous methods, which can include keyboarding, tape or digital recording, and/or repeating the spoken words.
  • Security :: A Sheriff's Deputy is assigned to every individual Courtroom to ensure the safety of everyone present, for the reasons discussed in my post earlier this week.  The Deputies are always in their law enforcement uniforms, and they are armed.  The majority of Sheriff's Departments in South Carolina regularly assign certain Deputies to the Family Court, which enables them to be very familiar with the types of issues and situations that might arise.

The following people may or may not be present in the Courtroom during hearings in Family Court:

  • Guardian ad Litem :: Cases in which custody is contested typically have a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) appointed to protect the interests of the minor children involved.  These GALs are often attorneys, though they may also be non-attorneys who have completed a certification process which includes certain mandatory education and training.  GALs participate in all hearings in the same manner as all other parties.
  • Other Litigants :: Some cases have parties other than the Plaintiff and Defendant, which can include Co-Plaintiffs, Co-Defendants, Third-Party Plaintiffs, or Third-Party Defendants. Some hearings involve non-parties being brought before the Court to address discovery issues, such as their failure to respond to a properly issued Subpoena.
  • Caseworkers :: In abuse and neglect cases brought by the Department of Social Services, the caseworker for that particular case is typically present and sits at the counsel table with the Department's attorney.  Other employees of the Department may testify in a given case, but the caseworker serves as the Department's “representative” at these hearings and assists its attorney as needed.
  • Friends / Family :: Some parties believe it is helpful to have friends and/or family present with them at certain hearings.  This “support system” may help alleviate stress in some cases, but they can actually increase the stress level in other cases.  The Judge has the ability to exclude these persons from the Courtroom under certain circumstances, and it is not unusual for the attorneys to agree to only have their clients present during hearings to avoid any unnecessary drama.
  • Baliffs :: Some Counties assign non-law enforcement baliffs to Family Court to help keep hearings runnign smoothly and efficiently. Typically, these baliffs notify the attorneys and parties when to report to the Courtroom for their hearing and/or call witnesses to come to the Courtroom to testify during testimonial hearings.
  • Observers :: Certain other individuals may be present during hearings to satify requirements that they attend a certain number of trials.  For instance, attorneys are required pursuant to Rule 403 to observe certain types of hearings, including ones in Family Court, before they are allowed to participate in hearings by themselves without a supervising attorney present. The certification process for Guardians ad Litem also requires them to observe a certain number of hearings in Family Court.

What about children?  Are they allowed to be present in the Courtroom during hearings in Family Court?

  • Custody / Visitation Actions :: Minor children are not allowed to be present or to testify against their parent(s) in private cases involving custody or visitation absentvery extreme extenuating circumstances. In fact, one thing that routinely angers Family Court Judges is when parents bring their children and attempt to have them testify against the other parent.  A variation that can equally irritate Judges is one parent obtaining an Affidavit from their minor child and attempting to introduce it agaist the other parent.  However, emancipated children who are 18 years of age or older may testify or provide Affidavits if they choose to do so. I would note that Judges have the ability to speak with a minor child in Chambers, but this is also done very rarely, as most Judges prefer to receive this type of information from the child through the Guardian ad Litem instead.
  • Abuse and Neglect Actions :: In certain cases, the Department of Social Services may desire or attempt to call a minor child to testify about abuse and neglect that was allegedly done by their parents (or another adult).  In these situations, the Department must strictly comply with the requirements set forth in South Carolina Code Section 19-1-180, and even then it is within the Judge's discretion as to whether the child will or will not be permitted to testify and what accommodations, if any, will be made during the child's testimony.
  • Adopton Actions :: In uncontested adoptions, it is quite common for parents to bring the children with them to these hearings, and the Judges welcome the child into the Courtroom for this joyous day.  In fact, many times photographs are taken after the hearing which may include the Judge, adoptive parents, and the adopted child.  On the other hand, contested adoptions are treated the same way as contested custody cases, and children are not allowed to be present in the Courtroom.

About the Author

J. Benjamin Stevens

Aggressive, creative, and compassionate are words Ben Stevens' colleagues freely use to describe him as a divorce and family law attorney. Ben is a Fellow in the prestigious American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the International Academy of Family Lawyers, and is a Board Certified Family Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocates. He is one of only four attorneys in South Carolina with those simultaneous distinctions. To schedule a consultation with Ben Stevens call (864) 598-9172.

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