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Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court

The lowest level trial court is called the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.

The Juvenile Court can hear cases involving (1) custody and visitation, (2) child support, (3) spousal support between married spouses who are separated, and (4) protective orders.  After a divorce is granted, and provided the final order of divorce transferred jurisdiction to the Juvenile Court, the Juvenile Court can enforce or modify existing spousal support, child support, custody and visitation orders.

To initiate a case in Juvenile Court, a petition must be filed. This can be done by a petitioner directly by going to the intake office of the appropriate Juvenile Court, or a lawyer can prepare a more detailed petition. Before the case can be heard by the court, the petition and notice of the first hearing date must be "served" on the defendant.    

Different courts use different procedures, but in many cases, if the case involves custody or visitation, a lawyer for the children called a guardian
ad litem may be appointed. Many Juvenile Courts require a "first appearance" where the parties and any attorneys, including the guardian ad litem, will be required to appear. The first appearance is used by the court to determine whether the case has settled, whether there needs to be discovery ordered, whether the case can go to mediation, and when everyone is available for a full trial.  

There is no jury in Juvenile Court. Rather, every trial is what is called a "bench trial"; this simply means that the judge hears all of the evidence and makes all of the rulings.  

If the court allows it, the plaintiff and the defendant may engage in discovery. Discovery includes interrogatories (written questions), requests for production of documents (a list of documents that must be produced), and requests for admission (allegations that must be admitted or denied).  Either party can also issue subpoenas
duces tecum (a subpoena seeking documents) to each other or to third parties (such as banks, schools or employers). 

Each judge has his or her own particular rules and procedures for trial. In general, however, trials in Juvenile Court are similar to those in any other court. Some judges may require all witnesses, except the parties themselves, to remain waiting outside of the courtroom. In some cases, each attorney, and in some cases the guardian
ad litem, will make an opening statement laying out the facts and issues of the case. At that point, the party who filed the case (called the plaintiff or the petitioner) begins calling his or her witnesses. The lawyer who called the witness asks the witness questions. This is called direct examination.

Often, witnesses are asked to identify photographs, documents and other evidence, which can then be introduced to the court. Next, the other lawyer gets to ask the witness questions about what he or she just testified about. This is called cross-examination. Cross-examination is my favorite part of trial; but, witnesses undergoing cross-examination often find it to be the worst part of trial. After the plaintiff has finished calling all of his or her witnesses, the defendant begins calling his or her own witnesses. Again, there is direct examination and cross examination. During the testimony, each lawyer will likely make many objections such as hearsay and leading. In custody and visitation cases the guardian ad litem will also have the opportunity to cross examine witnesses, and even call their own witnesses. The judge often will have questions for the witnesses as well.

There are dozens of laws and hundreds of rules that govern what questions can be asked, how questions may be asked, the consequences of asking a question the wrong way, the legal and factual consequences of different types of answers, what evidence may be introduced, and how evidence must be introduced. To give you an idea of how complicated this process is, I have a 700 page book in my office that is just about these evidence laws and rules. These laws and rules are quite literally a minefield, and going into trial without a deep understanding of them is very dangerous. 

When both the plaintiff and the defendant have finished presenting their cases, the judge will make a ruling. Sometimes the judge will make the ruling immediately. Other times, the judge will not issue a ruling until later.  

Either party can appeal the order to the Circuit Court. The appeal must be filed in writing within 10 days of the Juvenile Court order, and in many cases, a bond must be filed and specific fees paid by certain deadlines. If the appeal is not filed correctly, the right to an appeal may be lost. Provided the rules are followed, the appeal is "of right", meaning that no reason for the appeal must be specified. The appeal will be heard by the Circuit Court de novo. This means that the Circuit Court does not determine whether the Juvenile Court's ruling was correct, but instead the Circuit Court will hear the entire case over from the start.

Circuit Court

Above the Juvenile Court is the Circuit Court. The Circuit Court is the trial court that handles divorces, hears appeals from the Juvenile Court, and enforces and modifies its previous orders.

Most cases in Circuit Court are initiated by a complaint. The complaint must be served on the defendant. The defendant has twenty-one days to file a response. Sometimes the response is a legal objection to the proceeding. More often, the response is an answer to the allegations set out in the complaint. Once these initial pleadings are completed, either party is permitted to engage in discovery which, in the Circuit Court also includes depositions of the parties and third parties. After discovery has been completed, a trial is conducted in the same manner as in Juvenile Court. There is no jury in divorce and family law cases in Circuit Court. Rather every trial is what is called a "bench trial"; this simply means that the judge hears all of the evidence and makes all of the rulings. Within thirty days of the entry of a final order, either party may appeal to the Court of Appeals.

Appeal Courts

Virginia Court of Appeals

Final orders of the Circuit Court can be appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. An appeal is not a new trial, and no new evidence is presented. Instead, the Court of Appeals only considers the evidence that was presented to the Circuit Court at the divorce trial. Nor does the Court of Appeals reweigh the evidence an make a new ruling. Instead, the Court of Appeals only determines whether there was any evidence that could support the trial court's ruling or whether the trial court made a legal error. If an appeal is successful, the most likely outcome is that the case is remanded (sent back to) the Circuit Court to either rehear parts of the case or to fix any legal errors.

The procedure for appealing to the Court of Appeals is incredibly complex. We have taught entire courses to other lawyers on the rules and procedures involved in appeals to the Court of Appeals. In short, appeals require specialized documents that must be prepared exactly in accordance with the applicable rules, and there are strict deadlines that must be obeyed. If the documents are not prepared exactly right or if any deadline is missed, the appeal will be automatically dismissed. 

Supreme Court of Virginia

A decision by the Virginia Court of Appeals can be appealed in very limited circumstances to the Virginia Supreme Court. 

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