18th Annual Family Law Conference draws 180; focuses on complex evidentiary issues in divorce and custody cases

Issue November 2008 By Kelsey Sadoff

Nearly 180 attorneys and judges from across the commonwealth attended the Massachusetts Bar Association’s 18th Annual Family Law Conference at Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster. After a welcome reception on Oct. 17, the all-day conference on Oct. 18 focused on enhancing practitioners’ trial I.Q. through five interactive panels, which outlined complex evidentiary issues in divorce and custody cases.

“I love the Family Law Conferences,” said Massachusetts School of Law student Lisa Baratta, who has attended three Family Law Conferences. “To see judges up close and to interact with attorneys is great. It’s intimidating to see judges on the bench in the courtroom, but here they are more human and you feel like you can approach them.”

The conference panels, designed to give attendees insight into courtroom practices, included sessions on: “Cases, Statutes and Practical Implications in the Courtroom”; “Discovery and Admissibility of Medical Evidence”; “Criminal and D.C.F. Records”; and “Discovery in the Electronic Age.”

Attendees were also updated on the work of the Alimony Task Force, a joint venture between the MBA and the Boston Bar Association, which recently issued a report discussing alimony practices in Massachusetts. The MBA and BBA’s Family Law Section Councils are currently reviewing the report before it will be released to membership.

“I think that this [conference] is really addressing the key evidentiary issues we run into all the time,” said Lynn Whitney, who has a law office in New Bedford. “The GAL (guardian ad litem) reports and Vaughn affadivit overviews were very helpful.” Other participants agreed that the evidentiary issues overview was of great practical use.

“The mini hypotheticals with answers from judges were really effective,” said Massachusetts School of Law student and MBA Young Lawyers Division member Alycia C. Kenney. Kenney, who attended the Family Law Conference for the first time this year, was impressed with the panelists’ ability to interact with attendees.

The panels, which provided judicial perspectives from both the juvenile and probate and family courts, also provided a unique opportunity for judges to discuss areas of the law that overlap between their disciplines. Hon. Jay D. Blitzman of Middlesex Juvenile Court participated in the “Criminal and D.C.F.” panel discussion on what is admissible in court. “I am incredibly honored and thankful to be here,” said Blitzman. “Having had the pleasure of sitting through panel I [which discussed GAL reports], I find it’s imperative that we [members of the Probate and Family Court and Juvenile Court] get together and have an interdisciplinary discussion.”

“I think it is important that as family law practitioners we are always working to hone our skills — to be better at what we do — and we can accomplish that at a conference like this, which includes experts from other specialties,” said MBA Family Law Section Co-chair and conference Co-chair Veronica J. Fenton, of the Law Office of Veronica J. Fenton in Lenox.

Keynote speaker Hon. Gail L. Perlman, of the Hampshire Probate and Family Court, emphasized the need for alternative dispute resolution in the family court system. She outlined a family court model that would include justice, efficiency and attention to human need — with every system seeking a court where people would have access to both traditional legal services as well as mediation services.

“Think about resolution of conflicts with multiple I.Q.s,” said Perlman. “Trial I.Q. of course, with system theory I.Q. as well. Child development I.Q. so kids are not harmed, and adults-in-pain I.Q., because every person who comes to the court is in some level of pain — we collectively have an obligation to be wise in handling their suits.”

“Practice in the Family and Probate Court is a vocation — not a job,” said Hon. Robert W. Langlois, of the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, East Cambridge session, speaking on behalf of Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, who was unable to attend. “Each case is layered with emotion and not as straightforward as just applying the law.”

“The Family Law Conference was well attended, with lawyers from all four corners of the state and the panels included cross sections of expertise from criminal, family and juvenile courts,” said MBA Treasurer Denise Squillante. “Perlman, the keynote speaker, has planted seeds of thought for family law practitioners to look at the role of mediation in court and how it should be structured.”
The 2009 Family Law Conference will be held Nov. 6 and 7 at the Chatham Bars Inn.