The Covid 19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Connecticut’s family court system. This court system was already booked daily with numerous hearings that required in person hearings. Each of these hearings involved issues that were important to the lives of the people who had asked the Courts for help. Whether it was a parent who had been denied access to his or her children, or a parent seeking alimony or child support, or just a couple who needed a divorce so they could move on to the next stage of their lives, all of these cases involved issues important to the people in that case.
However, the pandemic brought the family court system to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020. At first the Courts literally shut down for several weeks. The Courts took a few weeks after this complete shutdown before they started to allow emergency motions on issues like restraining orders and motions for immediate sole custody of children. As a lawyer who practices family law in Connecticut, I had to tell many of my clients that they just had to wait until the Courts opened up again.
Some time later in the spring of 2020, the Courts started to open up through the use of virtual hearings, status conferences and virtual trials. For the Courts to conduct these proceedings virtually, via video conference, was a dramatic change for the Courts. Attorneys had to learn new Court procedures. But the most extraordinary change was the elimination of the old short calendar system and the introduction of the Pathways system. As an attorney who practices family law in Fairfield County Courthouses such as Stamford, Bridgeport and Danbury, I have seen first hand how these changes have unfolded.
Under the old short calendar system, attorneys would file motions for temporary relief on issues like alimony, child support, and child custody. These motions usually involved requests for “pendente lite” orders which go in place while the case is pending. Since a divorce case could take up to a year or more to come to trial, people need earlier intervention by a Court to resolve these issues.
Under the short calendar system, the motions would come up on the Court’s short calendar day which was usually one set day of each week. On this date the Court would entertain many motions including those filed by the other parties who had cases before the Court. As you can imagine, the Court could become a very crowded on these short calendar days with lawyers and litigants waiting for their cases to be processed by family services and then ultimately heard by a judge. Often, the Court did not have enough time in one day to hear all of the motions that had been scheduled for that day. These motions would be scheduled for a fixed hearing date at a later time. Sometimes the backlog was so bad that the motions would not be heard for many months. Imagine the frustration of people who are not receiving child support or who are being denied access to their children to be told their motion would not be heard until months later.
Under the Pathways system, the short calendar system is completely eliminated. Now when you file a motion for any of these things, the Court clerk will schedule the motion for a hearing on the Court’s next available day. This hearing date is now called a case date. In some Court’s in Connecticut it could take up to six months get your first case date on a motion. I have had cases in the Stamford Judicial District where I filed motions right after I filed the case, but the hearing on these motions was not scheduled to be heard until many months later. Trials in Stamford Superior Court could be scheduled up to two years later. Imagine the frustration of the people who see these dates and realize its going to take this long to have their issues resolved. Nevertheless, despite these frustrations, the Pathways system appears here to stay.
The Pathways system does allow a party to ask for a hearing on an earlier date, however, that is something that would have to be granted by a judge, and the Court would have to be able to find time on its schedule to fit it in.
The Pathways system also changes the way the Courts move the cases along from start to finish.
Now when you file your case, the Court will assign a resolution plan date. On this date, you must come to Court with a fully completed financial affidavit. The Court will require that you meet with the social workers at Family Services who will try to see if they can help you come to an early agreement on your divorce before you are allowed to see a judge. Your case will be scheduled on the same date as many others, so you may have to wait around for quite a while for your turn to speak to Family Services. If you cannot resolve your case that day, then your case will be assigned a level of difficulty for your case. One level is for cases that might need just a little more time to settle, another level is for cases that may likely need a full trial on all issues, and a final level for cases that are somewhere in between.
Cases that might settle more easily will be given follow up visits to family services to see if they can resolve their issues. Cases that do not look like they will resolve easily will be assigned a trial track. The trial track may look different in various courthouses around the State of Connecticut. However, they might involve a meeting with Special Masters. Special Masters are experienced family law attorneys who have been appointed by the Court to listen to the attorneys for the parties about the case, and then give a recommendation of settlement terms for the case. If the parties are not satisfied with the recommendation of the Special Masters, then the Court might order a pre-trial with a judge. In a pre-trial, the judge will again hear the attorney’s for the parties summarize their case, and then the judge will issue recommendations of how the case should settle. Very often cases settle at this stage.
The Pathways system has not provided any real advantages for litigants in helping them to get their cases settled earlier. The case dates, hearings on pendente lite motions, are still taking months to get scheduled. In the meantime, parties are still suffering from lack of access to their children or lack of child support while they wait for their case date to be heard. The Court’s schedules can still take over a year for an actual trial to be scheduled.
If you need assistance navigating your way through this new court system for your custody or divorce case in Stamford, Connecticut or any other part of Fairfield County, call Attorney Kevin L. Hoffkins at (203) 612-7015.