In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic first originated in 2020, the courts of Harris County and around the State of Texas have had to become much more open to conducting business in a way that previously would have been unthinkable. Whereas previously it was an extreme rarity to see courts allow for hearings to occur virtually or telephonically, that became the norm certainly for the first eighteen months of the pandemic. The courts themselves were largely closed to visitors including attorneys and the litigants themselves after the pandemic started.
However, in recent months the courts of Harris County have been slowly reintegrating in-person hearings back into their schedules. What the family courts, among the busiest of all Harris County District Courts, had to face in the past few months is a mounting backlog of cases that were not heard during the first year of the pandemic. In-person, matters were largely suspended before the family courts until the beginning of 2021. In-person, hearings were scheduled to occur via telephone. The courts also allowed for virtual hearings where parties and their attorneys could submit briefs and other motions before a video hearing and could testify with Microsoft Teams. This is not the ideal setup by any stretch of the imagination, but it would have to do considering the circumstances.
As most of us have seen in areas across our lives, the district courts of Harris County have done their best to be flexible in these difficult times but like an ocean liner trying to change course, it can take time to move a behemoth the size of Harris County. As such, if you asked a dozen family law attorneys in Harris County their opinions about the shift to virtual hearings and now back to in-person hearings you are likely to receive a dozen different sets of opinions. For some people, the experience has probably been rather seamless. Judges can hear cases and apply the law just as well from their chambers as he or they would have been able to do in the courtroom. Still, other attorneys probably have experienced situations where poor internet quality, tough cases, and unhappy clients have led to a sense of disappointment with how these hearings and trials proceed in a post-COVID era.
Why do family law cases proceed to court?
There are several reasons why Texas family law cases tend to end up going to court more often than other types of civil cases. Keep in mind that the idea that you are destined for the courtroom as soon as you file a child custody or divorce case is simply not true. Most family cases do not go all the way to a trial. Most family cases settle at some point in the negotiation process- whether that be in a mediation or informal settlement agreement. What we need to discuss and figure out in this blog post is why your case could be the exception. What could cause your family case to wind up in one of the family courts of Harris County?
For starters, I would like to provide you with an overview of the family courts in Harris County. Everyone who has spent even a fraction of a second in Harris County can tell you that we live in a big county both from a size and population perspective. The county itself is larger than at least one state. As a population, we boast more people in Harris County than all but two other counties in the United States. On top of that, Harris County grew by approximately 20% from the year 2010 to 2023 in terms of population. This means that nearly five million people are living in Harris County. If even a fraction of those people have a divorce or child custody matter to tend to then that means that the judges of the family court will have their work cut out for them.
Looking at divorce cases, there are so many areas of a case that could potentially land a family in court for a trial or hearing. First, there are contentious issues involving child custody that may need to be sorted out. Determining issues like primary conservatorship, child support, and visitation can cause even the most even-keeled parent to rear back on their hind legs and fight for what he or she believes is fair or appropriate. As a result, there may not be much middle ground when it comes to the issues of divorce. When there is a lack of middle ground or parents are unwilling or unable to find that middle ground the only other option is a court date.
In addition to child custody issues in divorce cases, community property division is another potential source of conflict. At a certain point, I was once told, a divorce ceases to be about marriage and starts to be about a business transaction. This means that the relationship and the history of two married people tend to get less important, and the focus of divorce tends to be on dividing things up in a more emotion-free fashion. That includes property. Community property is an interesting dynamic within divorce cases that most states do not have. Whereas in other states the spouse who earns more tends to get more of the marital property that is not the case in Texas. As a result, that means that there tends to be more acrimony and less agreement across the board. More reason to go to court for hearings and trials. This elongates cases and puts courts in a position where a divorce may remain active longer than at other times.
The other major family law case that fills the family courts of Harris County are child custody cases. Child custody cases can come in all shapes and sizes. While divorce cases follow a similar path from beginning to end a child custody case may look different from another child custody simply by what the parties are trying to achieve and whether the case is an original child custody case or a "post-judgment" case. In an original child custody case two unmarried parents are attempting to establish court orders related to child custody, possession, visitation, or another subject within the world of Texas child custody. These parents may never have been married in the first place or may have been divorced previously.
In any event, the disputes that we see in child custody cases are often solved with the assistance of mediation just as we see in divorce cases. The trouble in a child custody case is that the issues that happen are often more at odds than in a divorce. Whereas in a divorce the parties may be more willing to find some middle ground to move on with their lives and complete the divorce, the parties to a child custody case may already have gotten the divorce they seek or may not have been married at all. As such, these folks may see less of a reason to try to find some reasonable middle ground from which to negotiate. This can create a longer and more litigation-based family law case than we see happen in divorce cases.
Child custody cases can also be post-judgment issues related to modifying an original court order. If you or your child's co-parent would like to go back to the original court order and make some changes then what you are asking for is a child custody order modification. You may be attempting to modify a child custody order or even a final decree of divorce. A modification requires material and substantial change in circumstances since the rendition of the prior order on the part of you, your co-parent, or a child. This is a somewhat higher hurdle to clear for most parties.
The other issue that you need to be aware of is that modification cases can tend to find families in situations where there is not as much of a middle ground when it comes to the relevant issues. In a divorce, there is almost always a middle ground because you have no baseline from which to negotiate. The only baseline that you all can consider is a dysfunctional marriage. Everything is better than that, to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, you and your spouse were more willing to set aside your differences to try to move the ball to a field that is more advantageous for everyone involved.
Instead, what you may encounter in a child custody modification case is that one parent is satisfied with the orders and the other parent is dissatisfied. When one parent wants no changes, and the other parent wants significant changes the chances of becoming involved in a long, drawn-out family case increase dramatically. For example, if you want to become the primary conservator of your children but your ex-spouse wants to maintain that designation then you may have a potentially long child custody case on your hands. It may be that you all need to go to court for a trial to ultimately decide these issues. Similar circumstances may develop, for instance, if you have a geographic restriction in place that requires your children to live in a certain area. Your wanting to lift that geographic restriction so that you can move across the country may be an appealing idea to you but it is probably less compelling to your co-parent. Since there is no middle ground on this subject the idea of negotiating a settlement may be more of a pipe dream than you could realize.
These are some of the more compelling reasons why family law cases tend to go to court. Again, you may have specific circumstances that could either increase or decrease the likelihood of your case going to a trial. If this is something that you are concerned with or has questions about then, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan today. We offer free-of-charge consultations with our licensed family law attorneys where we can talk to you about your case and give you some options to ponder what is best for you and your family.
It may be that you are truly between a rock and a hard place. Not feeling like you have any options to pursue is a real feeling that you may be experiencing right now. Not coincidentally, this is also a feeling that many people who become involved in family law cases tend to feel. While it may not feel like you will ever be able to escape your family law case that is not true. There will be an end to the case at some point. However, whether you have the wherewithal to accomplish your goals (or whether you even have goals in the first place) is another subject altogether. Having an experienced family law attorney by your side can increase the likelihood of your developing goals and a strategy for achieving those goals. At the same time, I believe that your having an attorney to represent you will decrease the likelihood that your family case will wind up going before a judge to allow him or her to make decisions on behalf of your children.
With all of that said, let’s complete today’s blog post by looking into the current state of the Harris County family courts. What is it looking like in terms of active cases across the family courts? How quickly are cases going from pending/active to completed? These are the hard numbers that you can begin to consider when you think about bringing a family law case of your own. If a case has been filed against you then you have less time to consider what your options are and instead need to focus on maximizing the opportunity to better your life and that of your children.
The current state of the Harris County family courts
Twelve family courts in Harris County hear family law cases which range from divorces to child custody to post-judgment issues to adoptions. In Harris County, there is an established child support court known as an "IV-D" court by classification. This court specifically hears cases on behalf of parents and the Office of the Attorney General concerning establishing child support. Child support cases in this court can also relate to custody, visitation,and conservatorship. However, the primary purpose of the IV-D court is to set up parents with child support.
Additionally, the 280th District Court is the court that handles matters related to protective order applications. Protective Orders can be applied independently or as a part of a divorce or child custody case. This court only handles the application for and issuance of protective orders and their statistics of active and resolved cases are not readily available through the Harris County courts website. However, if you are in a position where family violence is an issue then you can look up information about the 280th Judicial District Court to learn their policy and procedures. Please note that this court is hearing cases in person.
Otherwise, ten family courts in Harris County actively hear arguments and motions related to child custody and divorce cases, primarily. When it comes to these sorts of cases we need to keep an eye on which courts have the highest number of non-post-judgment cases which are active. A post-judgment case is usually a modification case the type that we have discussed in this blog post as well as an enforcement case. An enforcement case is a family law case that seeks to enforce the terms of a prior court order.
Currently, the 257th District Court has by far the highest number of active cases pending at 2,946. That includes 772 active and pending post-judgment cases. The courts do not disclose why their total number of cases is higher than any other court, but we can assume that this court has seen cases transferring into it that may require more time to complete. On the other end of the spectrum, the 309th Judicial District Court has “only” 1,642 active cases, of which 374 are post-judgment cases. This makes a total of 22,587 active and pending family cases across Harris County.
Of those 22,587 cases, most of them are aged less than twelve months in terms of the date on which the cases were filed. More than 17,000 of those 22,587 were filed within one year of February 2023. This means almost every single non-post-judgment case in the Harris County family courts is less than a year old! In total, the courts are clearing out more cases than they are taking in currently. That is a good thing considering the backlog that existed in prior years coming out of the worst of the pandemic.
Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person over the phone and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as about how your family's circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody case,