Family Law Firm Tells It Like It Is

DSC00258_1I don’t know about you, but I like people, companies, organizations etc. that tell you what they are really all about and where they are at.

For most of the public, law firms are not particularly transparent entities. They deal in complicated subject matters and use complex language to describe what they do, if they ever explain it at all.

Not so, however, with respect to the Columbia, South Carolina law firm of Pincus Family Law. Their firm website tells you exactly what they will do and what they won’t. Their critics say their to-the-point abruptness can’t be good for business. Consider the following excerpts from their website.

Under the heading “Client Expectations” the following paraphrased rules are set out:

1. They do not work weekends and they will not provide clients with a weekend emergency number;

2. They will not routinely respond to email from clients on a weekend, however, if they do on occasion respond, this is the exception and not the rule;

3. They are good at what they do but they are not perfect. They are human beings with the same frailties as their clients. If a mistake is made, they will fix it quickly, but they do not expect to be harangued or insulted by their clients for human error;

4. They will return client phone calls in the order they are received by the firm, subject to their assessment as to client priority. Calling their office three or four times a day will not change the priority assigned to a call;

5. Legal Assistants and Paralegals are available to answer clients’ questions and provide status updates and their hourly billing rates are substantially less than the firm’s lawyers;

6. Being “nice” to your spouse during the divorce process is a laudable goal, but do not expect to get any concessions or consideration from your spouse as a result of your civility;

7. In the litigation process, your spouse’s lawyer will file documents called “pleadings”. These pleadings will contain allegations that may be upsetting to you. Don’t waste your emotional energy fretting over these documents. The allegations are “standard-operating procedure” and may or may not be true;

8. Courtrooms are overbooked and often there are an insufficient number of judges to handle all the scheduled cases. Don’t blame us if we cannot obtain hearing dates as early as you or we would wish. We have no control over court scheduling;

9. Your spouse may retain counsel who are “nasty” or who procrastinate. Once again, that is not our fault. We will work within the rules to keep your case moving forward but we cannot be held responsible for your spouse’s lawyers’ personality disorder or their delay tactics;

10. In divorce and family law, nothing happens quickly. That’s just the way the system is, so be prepared.

My impression? I love it! I have never seen a family law firm that has more succinctly identified some of the major client issues that cause friction between attorney and client. Certainly, many divorce lawyers operate on the same terms, they just don’t do their clients the favour of telling them.

As award-winning journalist Roberta Baskin has noted, there is a public feeding frenzy for transparency, and Pincus Law delivers all of that. Kudos to them!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge Sentences Family Lawyer to Jail and Hefty Fine for Alleged Sarcasm

DSC00507 (2)I guess he woke up on the wrong side of the bed….what else could explain the short-tempered reaction of Chief Judge A.J. “Buddy” Welch Jr. of Henry County Juvenile Court in Georgia to family law lawyer Ella A.S. Hughes?

In the midst of his decision to remove Ms. Hughes’ client’s children from their home and into the custody of the child protection authorities, the following exchange took place:

“Judge Welch (to Hughes): “That expression, ma’am, just cost you $100. You are removed from the court approved list.”

Hughes tries to speak up, but Welch tells her to stop.

Judge Welch: “Your sarcastic looks and your sarcastic attitude is unacceptable to this court. You are removed from the appointed list. You can reapply at some other time. You can stay on the cases that you presently have but if I ever see that action from you again I can assure you that appropriate actions will be taken. Do you understand that, ma’am?”

Hughes: “Yes, sir.”

Judge Welch: “You may not like my rulings but you can surely appeal them.”

Hughes: “If I may, Your Honor, the only thing I did was bow my head to write down what you were saying.”

Welch: “No, ma’am. You did not. Now you have tested the court’s patience. I find you in willful contempt of this court. You are fined $1,000 and you are given 10 days in jail. Take her into custody. I want the record to reflect that the attorney I just had to hold in contempt was not just bowing her head but she was giving sarcastic, unprofessional looks, body action that showed her disgust for the court’s ruling and disrespect for the court in its entirety.”

And off she went to jail…for a few minutes…paid her fine and headed to the courtroom where her next client awaited her.

The Georgia Appellate Court overturned the contempt finding made against Ms. Hughes…Just another day in the life of a trial lawyer.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge “Flabbergasted” By Lawyers Who Ignore Litigation Rules

BarristerIn a deservedly condescending judgment from the English High Court, Family Division, one can feel the frustration of Mr. Justice Holman as he describes the “titanic” litigation between Sandra Seagrove and Lawrence Sullivan, the unmarried parents of three children, ages 23, 20, and 10 years old, who looked to him to sort out the single issue of the division of the home they shared during their 20-year common-law relationship.

Noting that the couple spent only a few days to litigate parenting issues, Justice Holman pointedly observes that Ms. Seagrove has expended $800,000 and Mr. Sullivan over $500,000 in legal fees on a piece of property that is worth less than a $1 million dollars, amounting to a legal conundrum worth half of that.

But Judge Holman identifies another problem and that is counsels’ inability to follow the Rules of Court, rules enacted to control the needless expansion of family litigation, to ensure that cases are managed proportionately to their value to the litigants.

He quotes the Rule that provides that counsel may only submit 350 pages of documents, limited to one A4 size ring binder or one lever arch file, and the Rule that limits the number of case authorities to ten, unless the scale of the proceeding warrants it.

To his dismay, both sets of counsel, a senior and junior for each party, have paid no attention to the established practice directions or the recent decision of Mr. Justice Mostyn on document production, and the maximum number of cases to be relied on. Justice Holman says:

“Having referred to the completely disproportionate costs that have been incurred, I turn now to the documentation which underlines the scale and intensity of this dispute.

There were delivered to the court yesterday, or the day before, five large lever arch bundles of documents, which comprise over 2,000 pages, inclusive of the respective skeleton arguments, which are each just under 25 pages.

There were also delivered to the court two large bundles and one more slender bundle containing no less than 32 authorities. As if that were not bad enough (as I will later describe), I was, frankly, flabbergasted this morning when the solicitors arrived at the court at about 10.10 am with another large cardboard box containing an additional five large lever arch files of additional documents (these are the ones with lavender coloured card on their spines).

I have been told that those additional five bundles contain around a further 1,500 pages of documents. So, in aggregate, at the outset of this hearing, these parties are expecting consideration of all or part of 3,500 pages of documents as well as all or part of the 32 authorities. This needs to be considered within the framework that rule makers and the most senior judiciary have endeavoured to establish in order to ensure the proportionality of litigation.”

Mr. Justice Holman next entertains counsels’ submissions justifying their wholesale disregard of the Rules of Court, dismissing them in short shrift, and reminding counsel that courts cost money to run, and that if they wish to overindulge they are best to go the route of arbitration!

A slap in the face indeed, as it is well-known that one of the benefits of arbitration is reduced time, paper and costs!

The judge’s remedy? An adjournment to the next day and the following order:

“Except for the two skeleton arguments and the chronology, every single piece of paper that has so far been lodged will be taken away from this courtroom now. All the bundles of authorities will be taken away from this courtroom now.”

The postscript to the reported judgment of Seagrove v. Sullivan 2014 EWHC 4110 is:

“[NOTE: On the following morning the parties announced that they had reached a comprehensive settlement; and the judge was invited to make, and did make, a “Tomlin order” in which their detailed agreement is contained in a confidential schedule.]”

Why does a judge need to embarrass and humiliate counsel, including two Queen’s Counsel, to ensure that time and money is not frivolously wasted, and how unhappy were the parties when they received the judge’s indictment of their high-priced counsel?

Biased Judge Removed from Divorce Case

GEO_edited-1Sir Nicholas Mostyn was a formidable divorce lawyer before he was appointed a judge in London, England in 2010. Nicknamed “Mr. Payout”, he had an illustrious reputation for obtaining large sums of money for his female clients and was among the most sought after barristers for the monied upper class.

Of course, many male clients clamoured for his services and he represented Paul McCartney in his divorce battle with Heather Mills. She sought $125 million dollars but was only awarded $25 million.

He also acted for Lady Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer, who later sued Mr. Mostyn claiming that his second wife received $1 million more in a settlement than she deserved because Mostyn failed to advise him that his divorce proceeding would not remain private, as there had been a recent change in the law.

The Earl of Spencer was forced to settle to avoid the fall-out of a public trial. The lawsuit went nowhere.

This week Justice Mostyn was subject to a rare order from the Court of Appeal, removing him from a case he had been assigned.

It is not uncommon to hear clients complain about judges who they perceive are unsympathetic, even biased against them, but it is a rare occasion when an application to remove a judge is granted.

In British Columbia if counsel believes there is evidence to suggest that a judge may be biased against their client, they may bring an application to have the judge removed. However, the tricky part is that the application must be brought before the judge you accuse of bias.

About 99% of the time, the judge will gamely hear the application but dismiss it. These applications are infrequent, however, I remember a case fifteen years ago where I brought such an application. At the time, my legal research indicated that the chances of success were extremely slight and true to form, the application was dismissed.

As for Justice Mostyn, the complaint against him included
the allegation that he had made up his mind against litigant Mr. Mann, who had cancer, had fallen on hard times and lived in social housing. Mrs. Mann brought the matter to court in her attempt to have her ex-husband pay her $2 million she said was owed her as a result of their matrimonial matter, following their separation in 2007.

Justice Mostyn threatened to throw Mr. Mann in prison if he did not pay his ex-wife the funds owed. Mr. Mann’s lawyer also argued that the Justice was generally hostile towards his client throughout the proceedings.

The Court of Appeal judges acceded to the claim against Justice Mostyn. Lady Justice Macur referred to hearings before Judge Mostyn in February and June 2014, describing ‘intemperate judicial dialogues’ showing that Justice Mostyn had made up his mind about Mr Mann’s ability to pay.

She also said: ‘During that time Mostyn J’s frustration is palpable and clearly arises from his obvious belief that Mr. Mann is deliberately and maliciously avoiding his legal and moral responsibilities.’

A new judge has been assigned to the case.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Child Custody Dispute and Abduction Precursor to Murder of Father and His Family

DSC00275_1A Mississauga family: father, mother and adult son, were systematically eliminated in what police say may be revenge and payback arising from a high conflict custody case, resulting in this week’s arrest of 34-year-old Melissa Merritt and her common-law spouse, Christopher Fattore, age 37.

This bizarre case is the ultimate tale of “truth being stranger than fiction”, but it began so happily when Melissa Merritt and Caleb Harrison met and began living together in 2000.

Two children followed in quick succession and they married in 2003. However, domestic violence marred their union and the couple split in 2005 after Caleb was convicted of assaulting Melissa.

A month after their separation Caleb drove drunk, killing a taxi driver and injuring four teenagers. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and his mother, Bridget Harrison, took over the care of the children.

From there the battle lines were drawn… but the tragedies did not subside. In 2009 Melissa’s father-in-law, Bill Harrison, suddenly died at the home he shared with Bridget, his death attributed to a heart attack.

A month later Melissa abducted her two children, remaining at large for several months. Upon her return, she was convicted of criminal child abduction but served no jail time. Her access to the children, however, was now limited to every second week-end and specified holidays.

Almost a year after Bill Harrison’s death, one of the grandchildren found Grandma Bridget dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home. Suspicions were heightened with the second Harrison death in twelve months.

In the meantime, a fire destroyed the home Melissa shared with her common law spouse and their four children. The couple lost everything, but the custody battle still raged, and in 2013 Melissa filed a court application for joint custody.

A month later Caleb Harrison was also dead, and police began an investigation into the deaths of three family members in five years.

In January 2014 Melissa Merritt and her spouse, Chris Fattore, were charged with first degree murder in the deaths of her ex-husband, Caleb Harrison, and his mother, Bridget Harrison.

This week Melissa and Christopher were also charged with the murder of Bill Harrison and extradited from Nova Scotia to Brampton Ontario where they remain in custody.

All six of their children are now in care. It is unfathomable that one woman could destroy so many people’s lives…of course, she is innocent until proven guilty.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Mystery of Munchausen By Proxy

10950859361151CDPMany years ago I acted for a single mom who had an 8-year-old daughter. She retained me when her ex-husband filed an application seeking a change of custody from my client to him…not so unusual, right?

Wrong! This case was my first introduction to the mental illness called “Munchausen by proxy”, an insidious syndrome that experts say causes mothers, rarely fathers, to exaggerate or fake their child’s health problems, or in the worst cases, deliberately harm or cause injury to their child.

The signs and signals that Munchausen may be present include:

• A child who is often hospitalized with unusual and unexplained symptoms that seem to go away when mother is not present, or a child who is moved by her caregiver from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital.

• Symptoms that don’t match the child’s test results.

• Symptoms that worsen at home but improve while the child is under medical care.

• Drugs or chemicals in the child’s blood or urine.

• Siblings who died under strange circumstances.

• A mother who is overattentive to the child and overly willing to comply with health care workers.

• A mother who is a nurse or who works in the health care field.

Unfortunately, many friends, family, and medical experts who observe such symptoms have difficulty imagining that the child’s mother, who is overly protective, indeed, sacrificial in her care for her child, could intentionally harm her child.

Psychologists explain that the pay-off for the Munchausen mother is the fulfillment of her pathological need for attention and sympathy, something that the growth of social media exploits, with Facebook postings and mommy-blogs.

This week in White Plains, New York, jury selection began in the manslaughter trial of 29-year-old Lacey Spears, mother of 5-year-old Garnett-Paul Spears, who is accused of poisoning her son with sodium….that’s right, every day table salt.

Garnett-Paul’s sodium levels escalated, confounding his doctors at Westchester Medical Centre who tried desperately to control his brain swelling and seizures, and prevent his eventual death.

Meanwhile his mother used social media to regale her readers with details of Garnett-Paul’s tortuous medical journey, all the while preening and accepting accolades for her unstinting dedication to her sick son.

Ms. Spears was bedside at the hospital with her son, sleeping with him overnight, until he died. Prosecutors allege that she was continually depositing salt in his feeding tube.

His death is a terrible tragedy and one that experts say is rare, because Munchausen mothers don’t intend to kill their children, they simply want them to stay sick to feed their uncontrollable need for attention.

As for my client, her ex-husband was unable to prove that his daughter was a victim of Munchausen by proxy, although the circumstances were admittedly suspicious. I often wondered how that little girl fared and prayed for her for many years.

Not surprisingly, the medical literature indicates that the syndrome is difficult to investigate and prove, and often doctors are not willing to make the diagnosis for fear of being wrong. Better safe than sorry, I say.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

The Free-Range Kid Movement

49afd8240a58bf0fb97d4a86105572c1Until Danielle and Alexander Mietiv from suburban Maryland became embroiled in a child protection investigation for allowing their children, ten and six, to walk a mile home together from the park, unsupervised by an older child or adult, I had never heard of “free-range” kids. But I get it…they’re like free-range chickens: fresh air, sunshine and open space.

How dangerous could that be? Not at all, say proponents of the movement, who hearken back to the kinder, gentler world they grew up in, and want the same for their offspring.

The children’s mother Danielle says:

“The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had—basically an old-fashioned childhood,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely critical for their development—to learn responsibility, to experience the world, to gain confidence and competency.”

Ms. Meitiv is obviously a fan of the original free-range mom, Lenore Skenazy, who let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone a few years ago, leading to her tabloid designation as “America’s Worst Mom.”

Not a problem, she said, and now stars in Discovery Life Channel’s “World’s Worst Mom” and is the author of “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)”, published in 2009. A year after her book came out she declared the first “Take Your Kids to the Park Day and Leave Them There Alone”.

But for those who can’t understand why a parent would ignore the real world…including traffic accidents, pedophilia, and “stranger danger”, free range kids are not in the cards for them. They say that children need boundaries and even with them, can become independent, self-reliant, and confident children.

The world of “Mayberry” and “Barney Fife” ended decades ago and for me, a child is too precious to take a risk.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang