In a recent case, a Maryland appellate court considered a local court policy that limited the parties’ ability to access investigative reports ordered by the court in a child custody matter. The mother challenged this policy after the court awarded sole legal and physical custody to the father of her children.
The case arose when a father filed for divorce. He sought sole physical and legal custody of their two kids. The court ordered that the Adoption and Custody Unit (ACU) investigate and prepare a report. The ACU interviewed the parties, relatives, and the kids and discovered the parties’ personal history, including education, housing, employment, criminal and physical and mental health histories. The report was 147 pages including records. The report did not recommend which parent should get custody.
The day the report was due came and went. The ACU filed the report late. The parties’ attorneys were notified they could now look at the report at the clerk’s office. The policy was that the attorneys could view the report in the office, but could not copy any sections or take it out of the office.
The mother’s attorney looked at the report, taking notes for an hour and a half until the clerk’s office closed. He could not go back to the clerk’s office before the judge held his hearing and didn’t see the report again.
The hearing was two days. The mother’s attorney tried to exclude the report from evidence or to get a copy of the report. The trial court denied the motions, erroneously claiming the policy wouldn’t even permit the attorneys to have control of the policy. It granted the father’s divorce petition and gave him sole custody.
The mother appealed, claiming a violation of due process because her attorney couldn’t prepare for trial with insufficient time to read the report. However the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the lower court.
The mother petitioned the Court of Appeals. It declined to reach the merits at first because the other parties didn’t oppose or present any argument. It asked the lower court to supplement the record.
Later, in this case, the appellate court reviewed the case and specifically the court’s policy regarding the report. The appellate court reasoned that this type of report usually includes a lot of hearsay and hearsay within hearsay. It usually also includes the investigators’ subjective impressions.
The appellate court reasoned that by preventing the mother from challenging the report and adhering to the policy, the trial judge had prevented the mother from progressing towards truth by presenting evidence counter to the report. This progression is a major benefit of the adversarial system.
The appellate court ruled a judge could not blindly apply an administrative policy. It found the trial court misapplied the policy, particularly in light of the sensitive nature of a child custody case. The judge’s abuse of discretion could have prejudiced the mother. The lower court was required to exercise its discretion, but failed to do so and so the appellate court reversed.
Divorce and child custody can raise complex questions for you and your family. If you have decided to divorce, contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney for representation. Our office may be able to help you through this difficult time.
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