Family Court is the most dramatic forum when it comes to people telling their stories. Everyone involved in Family Court all sudden become skilled storyteller. There is no other Court, not even Criminal Court, where the parties are prone to give the most salacious details of incidents. Exaggerated facts, animated recollection of events, etc. are all inherent in divorce and custody matters, particularly the most contentious ones. Believe or not, there are laws in place to keep misrepresentations to a minimum in court. Specifically, when the parties have sworn to tell the truth, knowingly lying in court is considered perjury in family court.
Perjury is defined as “the offense of willfully telling an untruth in a court after having taken an oath or affirmation”. (Oxford Dictionary).
When is it Perjury?
So, there are several instances in Family Court when individuals are required to explain events, scenarios, etc. in detail. In court documents, in mediation, in conferences and in hearings/trials, opportunities present themselves to give one’s account of how things happened. Family Court is the one venue where giving testimony can seem never-ending. And there are times when an individual can unconsciously skew the facts, to get their point across.
Perjury is not a mis-telling of the facts in the court hallways, or in conversation amongst the parties with their attorneys or not, or in any other scenario where they were not placed under oath. But perjury is a skewing of the facts in court documents, in court hearings and even in depositions because in all these scenarios the party affirms that they are telling the truth. A mistake on basic personal information may not arise to the level of perjury. So, for example, an incorrect date of birth, height or weight are not considered perjury and can be corrected by amendment.
A person does not have to be a party in the case to commit perjury. Witnesses in the case can also be guilty of perjury if they make a false statement or give false testimony while under oath.
Proving Perjury in Family Court
Knowing what perjury is or is not just part of the puzzle. The other part is making a case for perjury and effectively proving it. Just because a person makes a misrepresentation in a court document or in open court does not automatically make it perjury. If the statement is misleading or nonresponsive, but true, then there is no perjury. So, if the individual really believes that they are telling the truth in their statements or testimony, again there is no perjury.
If that statement made is not “material” to the outcome of the case. If someone makes a false statement that has no bearing on an issue that is being litigated, then it is not material. Trying to prove perjury for every single misrepresentation, no matter how small, would place a tremendous burden in the court.
To prove that an individual perjured him or herself the accuser must prove that the statement is false, that they knew it was false and that it was material to the outcome. Even when all these elements are met, the courts may not penalize the perjurer too severely.
The Consequences of Perjury in Family Court
Sometimes proving that someone made false statements or misrepresentation in Family Court is best addressed by impeaching them. Because perjury is so rampant in Family Court expecting actual punitive consequences is a stretch.
Perjury can be seen as a civil liability, as a crime or merely as a violation. Civilly the accused can be subject to libel or slander if the target of the false statements can prove actual damages, or the court can impose its own fines pursuant to its laws. Criminally, the perjurer can be prosecuted and ordered to pay fines, be imprisoned or both. Or the perjurer can be held in contempt if the court finds that he or she violated the court’s inherent principles to act with decorum. In Family Court, the consequences usually involve a charge of contempt or a ruling on an issue that is the subject of perjury. For example, if a party has been proven to have committed perjury by lying about the value of his or her assets, the judge may order an equitable share of those assets to the non-perjuring party as punishment. Occasionally the courts will impose financial sanctions, such as attorney’s fees, where perjury was proven.
This article is not intended to encourage lying in Family Court or to show how to lie in Family Court successfully. On the contrary, my intention is to enlighten you on the reality of Family Court and how perjury is viewed there.
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