Greene County court starts innovative program aimed at helping resolve domestic disputes quickly

Greene County Domestic Relations Judge Cynthia Martin (left) and Magistrate Kimberly Stump Combs stand in the new neutral evaluation program court room. STAFF/BONNIE MEIBERS
Greene County Domestic Relations Judge Cynthia Martin (left) and Magistrate Kimberly Stump Combs stand in the new neutral evaluation program court room. STAFF/BONNIE MEIBERS

Greene County Domestic Relations Court is starting a new program in June that court officials hope will save families time, money and heartbreak.

The Domestic Relations Court is starting a neutral evaluation program to help parties resolve disputes confidentially and without a trial. The new program is designed to assist both parties in coming to a resolution with more participation in the process.

The court turned a former office into a fourth courtroom on Ledbetter Road and will start hearing neutral evaluation cases next month. People are either assigned or file a motion to request a neutral evaluation. There is no cost for the program.

Magistrate Kimberly Combs will be taking on the neutral evaluator role in addition to her other duties. She has worked for the court for 18 years.

Every kind of case, aside from domestic violence, is eligible for the neutral evaluation program.

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“If families come to their own resolution it’s easier for the kids, because then the parents are modeling good behavior for the kids to learn,” Combs said. “It is a more positive experience for kids. And if we can shorten the process that’s less litigation and that’s more money in the family’s pocket.”

Kids also don’t have to feel that they are in limbo during a trial, Combs said.

“You come to your own agreement, and it gives you a chance to be heard more openly than you are in a traditional judicial proceedings,” said Domestic Relations Court Judge Cynthia Martin. “You’re giving people an opportunity to really explain themselves and why they think what they think, which is so important. I do think people need the opportunity to feel like they’ve been heard.”

Martin said domestic relations court can be the most dangerous court because there are so many emotions involved when it comes to family issues. Having a way to peacefully resolve issues, like neutral evaluation, can help.

Neutral evaluation sessions are typically three to four hours long on one day, Combs said.

Before both parties and their attorneys come in, they fill out forms laying out their different issues and perspectives. The neutral evaluator looks over the case. Then all parties come to the court room and get 15 minutes to discuss their side of the case. Then attorneys for each side then have their own allotted time to fill in the blanks on anything their client may have missed.

The neutral evaluator will give everyone a break while they take some time to evaluate the case, then present their decision and give both parties time to talk with their attorneys before the parties accept or decline the settlement.

This whole process is off the record, so if both parties accept the settlement, the agreement will then be read into the record. If there is not a settlement reached, nothing said in the neutral evaluation process can be carried over into a court case.

“All my notes, all the briefs, those all get shredded,” Combs said.

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There is a neutral evaluation program in Warren County. Combs and Martin said their new program was modeled after that one. Martin said the program is “forward thinking” for a county of this size.

There are also neutral evaluation programs on the coasts and one in Hamilton County.

“This is the way of the future,” Martin said.

Laura Pendry is a Greene County domestic relations and probate attorney who has had a few clients in Warren County participate in the neutral evaluation program there.

“Trials sometimes pit you against one another and this is a way to get out without animosity,” Pendry said. “It is a less adversarial process.”

Pendry said she thinks this new program will create more access to the court for families. Both parties can speak directly to the judicial official or magistrate and feel heard. Pendry said she sees this program as being beneficial, especially in cases where both parties agree on most things, but there are one or two small things that they can’t come to an agreement on.

Martin and Combs said they think the program will have a huge impact, especially on families with children.

“Divorce is a very real thing and it happens in 50% of relationships and households, and we’re left having to divide assets in a very emotional way, and time with children, and if we can make that process more efficient and more understanding and more respectful we raise better children who stay in our community and are better people,” Martin said. “It’s very far reaching and we find that the more people are involved in their process and their solution, the happier they are, and the less they come back to court.”