What is the role of hearing officers used by family courts?
Because of the enormous number of cases judges in some districts have waiting to be heard, courts use "hearing officers," "special commissioners," or similarly termed positions.
MotivationSome judges have dockets (schedules) that carry well over 1,000 cases and many believe it better to have an independent third person help move the case along and give the parties a notion as to how their dispute will play out. It is hoped this extra step actually gives the parties more information to settle their case and save them the huge cost of a trial.
Who are Hearing Officers?These people are always trained lawyers but are not technically qualified as "judges." They are permitted to hear each side to a dispute and make findings that are reviewed by the judge assigned to the case.Each side has an opportunity to object to any or all of the findings that the hearing officer makes. That review will occur before the judge when each side gets to tell the judge why they differ with the hearing officer's findings. Only after the second hearing (or if there are no objections filed by either party) does the hearing officer's findings become final.
What do they do?The hearing officer usually does not hear all of the case, usually just some aspect of the dispute. for example, in a child custody dispute, the officer will conduct a hearing on temporary primary placement of the child(ren) and award temporary child support be paid. The idea is to get the case moving forward so there are not quite so many issues awaiting the judge if the case finally comes to trial.
Impartial ViewHaving these kinds of hearings also give the parties a chance to see how an impartial third party looks at the conflicts and how the other person actually performs under examination. There is also a chance to test the evidence under oath in this setting and courts can also appoint independent third persons to assist the judge in taking evidence on certain aspects of the case.