Protecting Your Child During a Divorce: The Private Courtroom Keeps Family Secrets Out of Public Record
Georgia is one of only two states in the country that permits divorcing spouses to air their grievances before a jury of their peers. Although jury trials in divorce cases are relatively rare, the issue of child custody in divorce is not.
As a matter of public policy and state law – regardless of whether spouses choose to end their marriage before a jury or a judge – the issue of child custody in Georgia is always a decision made by the judge.
The overriding concern is that children, as the most critical subject of an often-acrimonious divorce, are innocent parties to the litigation. They can be left psychologically scarred by having their deeply personal family dynamic exposed to the more public aspects of a jury trial, regardless of whether they are present in the courtroom or not.
Bench Trials in Custody Cases Do Not Guarantee a Child’s Privacy
Many parents assume that, even if they decide that the remaining aspects of their divorce – equitable division, alimony and child support – will be decided by a jury and thus open to public view, their children nonetheless will be insulated from such exposure because a judge, and not a jury, presides over the custody phase of the trial.
Unfortunately, an individual’s right to privacy (including children’s privacy rights) does not extend to preclude the public from attending custody trials in Georgia. Custody trials, like most other types of civil proceedings in Georgia, are open to the public almost without exception. The general public’s presumptive right to attend trials springs from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which implicitly affirms the right of the people to listen as a corollary to the right to freedom of speech.
Although private citizens’ attendance at a bench custody trial may not have presented a significant cause for concern to some parents prior to the advent of the Internet, today’s proliferation of social media places children at a far more significant risk of harm than during the newspaper age. One need only look to the nightly news to acknowledge the heartbreaking, and often disastrous consequences, of an individual’s ability to exploit a cell phone or computer to electronically spread intensely private information about a minor.
The potential damage is exacerbated by the media’s presumptive right to attend child custody trials. This is a particular concern in high conflict or high profile cases, where the parents are public figures, or their pending divorce has for whatever reason been deemed newsworthy.
The Private Courtroom Alternative
Parents who share a concern that the most intimate details of their divorce may negatively impact their children should consider the private courtroom, which serves the dual purpose of removing the case from the public eye as well as protecting a child from the potentially harmful effects of public disclosure of the family’s problems, whether it be those of the parent or the child.
The private courtroom affords litigants the same formal judicial process and level of judicial expertise as a public trial, without the necessity of parading family secrets before strangers. Other advantages include the factfinder’s ability to devote full attention to the case and ensure that sensitive testimony will remain private.