2011 Year in Review: Family Law & Probate

Hon. Joyce Cram


The Family Law Division, like all other divisions, has continued to suffer from the serious budget shortfall. Staffing is at an all-time low, while filings remain essentially unchanged. However, as in the past, our dedicated staff continues to provide outstanding service. In response to feedback, the filing window hours were extended from a 2:00 p.m. closing to 3:00 p.m. to assist litigants. The Self Help Desk still maintains its 2:00 p.m. closing so the staff can help with the backlog.

A typical month has our facilitators helping over 3,000 people, many in crisis. Our “Child Custody Recommending Counselors” (previously known as Mediators) see over 130 families every month, with well over two-thirds resulting in total or partial agreement. Our mediators are now letting the judges know if there is a no-show so that parties in court that day can get cases mediated immediately instead of waiting up to three months. We have also instituted a pilot program, Parenting Plan Workshops, for parents who are willing to work together to formulate a parenting plan, but who find they need some help. These have shown an 80% success rate and we hope to expand the program.

Our dedicated long cause trial department, with Judge Ben Burch presiding, has tried over 60 very long cause family law matters and over 100 domestic violence restraining order hearings, shortening time to trial in the other departments. He has also presided over a dozen other trials including probate, conservatorship and mental health (LPS) trials. This, along with Retired Commissioner Jim Libbey covering for our judges during vacations, our time-to-hearing has been reduced in all departments. Commissioner Libbey’s wealth of knowledge in Family Law has been a boon to the division.

A Family Law department in the Richard E. Arnason Justice Center is now a reality, headed by Commissioner Jeffrey Huffaker. Families who live in East County no longer have to commute to Martinez for family law matters. This department is bustling with activity (over 30% of family law filings are from East County). We began accepting filings in Pittsburg mid-year, and parties can get mediations, self-help assistance, workshops and hearings all done locally.

Each of our bench officers – Judges Scanlon, Treat, Fannin, and Burch and Commissioners Berkow and Huffaker – have shown incredible dedication and commitment to the job of helping families in difficult situations.


Our Probate Division has been thriving under the hand of Judge John Sugiyama. New to the assignment in April, he immediately immersed himself in the details and nuances of Probate. Based on need, the calendars have been rearranged, so we now hold Guardianship and Conservatorship hearings three days per week. Also, tentative rulings are now posted two weeks in advance, giving litigants additional time to cure deficiencies and reducing the need for court appearances.

Workshops and clinics are increasing in number. Guardianship workshops are held on Thursdays; the Lawyer in the Library program is on the second Tuesday; the Bar Association provides guardianship assistance the first Wednesday of the month; conservatorship classes are taught monthly by professional fiduciaries; and there are monthly conservatorship clinics.

These workshops and clinics, products of collaboration between the court and various justice partners such as the Contra Costa County Bar Association, the Contra Costa County Public Law Library, Senior Legal Services, and volunteer professional fiduciaries, help self-represented litigants navigate the complicated world of guardianships and conservatorships as they step in to help the most vulnerable of our population.

Finally, Judge Sugiyama hopes to add a long cause calendar to his already-busy calendar. With his enthusiasm for the assignment, along with the hard work of the court staff, Probate will continue to be a thriving, vital part of our court.

Filed Under: Spotlight


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