University of Denver

Oregon’s Innovative Trial Model Offers User-Friendly Option for Family Law Cases

Associate Professor and Director, Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic, University of Wyoming College of Law

The Deschutes County Circuit Court in Oregon recently adopted an Informal Domestic Relations Trial (IDRT) process to improve access to family court for parties who prefer and will benefit from a simpler decision-making process than a traditional trial. The process is available to parties with attorneys as well as self-represented litigants, and is gaining support as a fair and streamlined way to resolve many family law matters.

Separation and divorce cases represent the largest type of action filed in state family courts around the country. Family law dockets are crowded and the number of self-represented litigants continues to rise. As explained in IAALS’ Cases Without Counsel Research Report, some courts are experiencing situations where 80-90% of family cases involve at least one self-represented party. While many can’t afford to hire an attorney, others are seeking a less adversarial approach to an already emotionally charged life event. In any case, most of our courts are simply not set up to handle the deluge of self-represented litigants and the increase in family law cases.  

So, as family law court dockets become more crowded and final resolutions take longer, most states are looking for innovative ways to process family law cases. Many of the innovations surrounding the delivery of legal services, including technological advancements, depend on courts’ willingness to modify the way they process family law matters in order to better meet the needs of families. An Informal Domestic Relations Trial gives parties an opportunity to speak directly with the judge by waiving traditional rules of evidence, including direct and cross-examination, and limiting non-party witnesses to necessary experts. It also allows the judge to focus on best interest factors when considering child custody and parenting issues. Further, by issuing a decision immediately at the end of a trial, this process improves the efficiency of the courts and parties’ perspectives on the legal system.

By offering families an option between a traditional trial or the Informal Domestic Relations Trial, the Deschutes County Circuit Court, in collaboration with Oregon’s Statewide Family Law Advisory Committee, is meeting the needs of a substantial number of court constituents and doing so in a way that preserves the integrity of both the family and the court.  

Informal trial processes are just one avenue being explored by states as a less-adversarial and just means to resolving family law issues. States are also exploring and improving self-help resources, alternative dispute resolution options, and other programs like IAALS’ Center for Out-of-Court Divorce, a cutting-edge resource in Denver, Colorado. Families who are looking for a holistic, non-adversarial transition that strives to keep the emotional well-being of the family, especially the children, intact can turn to the Center for help navigating the separation or divorce process. Idaho and Australia were some of the first places where courts embraced informal trial innovations and many other states are following suit, including Utah, Alaska, Michigan, and Iowa. 

More information is available here about this process and other simplified court processes around the country.