In a perfect world, David Turner would stay out of the spotlight. The Davis County resident prefers to work behind the scenes, without calling attention to his name. But, his role as a heartbroken dad might further efforts to speed up the divorce process in Utah courts.
In August 2003, Turner’s daughter Natalie died in a police standoff following a nasty three-year custody battle with her ex-husband, John Pochynok. Natalie allegedly shot her ex-husband and then pulled a gun on police. Turner believes the lengthy divorce process prompted the tragedy. His suspicions are echoed in a recent report by the Davis County Safe Homes Executive Committee on which he sits, identifying the need for stricter time frame on specific civil cases, including high-conflict divorce.
The report, “Justice for All?” gathers recommendations from local law-enforcement agencies, social-service providers, child advocates and numerous nonprofit groups working to address court and domestic violence issues. Its findings show a need for an improved judicial process, one that could help decrease the state’s soaring domestic violence rate. Utah Department of Health statistics show that a third of Utah women are at some point victims of an abusive relationship in a state that ranked 16th in national domestic homicide rates. Turner believes those statistics are reason enough to instigate change.
“There needs to be an overhaul of divorce cases, particularly if there is a history of violence,” Turner said, adding that his goal is to ensure that the truth, law, common sense and decency apply to all parties involved. One person should not be put at risk or disadvantage because his or her spouse can better afford legal representation.
In 1984, the Idaho judiciary implemented the notion of time standards in an effort to eliminate churning, or the practice of two attorneys aggravating tensions among their respective parties. As a result, judges received the mandate to keep the judicial process on a swift, steady track without attorney interference. Speedier civil cases, particularly those concerning divorce, help ease financial burden on both parties and on taxpayers otherwise responsible for subsidizing attorneys and their clients'especially when some of those clients rely on welfare. Perhaps most importantly, a timely divorce process can prevent an abusive spouse from using the court system to manipulate, stalk or physically abuse the non-offending party.
While such methods seem sound, some local attorneys and members of Utah’s judiciary committee believe they are unnecessary. Mark Jones, Utah’s state district court administrator, said the court rarely experiences significant delays. The Office of the Legislative Auditor General recently issued a performance audit examining whether the system is as fine-tuned as Jones suggests. Its findings show that 24 percent of open civil cases are older than two years and that about 300 cases are older than five years. Data also indicate that the District Court completes 87 percent of major civil cases within one year, a figure Jones regards as more telling of the court’s overall performance.
“The way that we handle cases would be the envy of any state in the country,” he said, adding that comparisons to Idaho’s judiciary are uneven at best, since Utah judges handle larger caseloads. Jones also pointed out that the majority of so-called pending cases have been finalized as far as the filing parties are concerned and simply need to be closed out properly in the court’s computer system. Such reasoning is good enough for legislators who currently have no plans to introduce bills on time standards.
Stewart Ralphs, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, thinks the situation is more complicated. He believes that with the proper incentive, local attorneys could expedite the process. For example, Ralphs handled a divorce that went five years before a judge finalized the proceedings. Still, he believes that if he’d been required to meet a certain time frame, the case might not have lasted so long.
“We can move just as fast or slow as we are required to do,” he said, adding that some attorneys do, in fact, drag out cases for financial benefit. “Stuff that’s due tomorrow versus three weeks from now obviously gets top priority.” Besides time standards, Ralphs suggests accelerating the pace of civil cases by filing financial declarations at the outset, rather than toward the end of lengthy legal battles.
Turner wants more than a quick fix. He believes that while the court system excels in many aspects and that there might be more below-radar efforts addressing the problem of lengthy cases, no one is keeping track of what might go horribly wrong. “Our judges are totally unaccountable,” he said. “In Idaho, if a judge doesn’t keep up with his caseload, he doesn’t get paid.” Turner hopes to ensure that future divorce litigants won’t lose control like his daughter due to a prolonged legal battle.