By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent
The divorce rate has skyrocketed in China as a result of mandatory lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
What about Laguna Beach?
Although Laguna Beach family law attorney Pam Shaffer has seen more traffic on her firm’s website—perhaps the divorce-curious investigating the process—her phone has been ringing with calls from parents struggling to maintain harmony over child custodial time.
Shaffer’s time is in demand as family dynamics become strained due to the virus and its resounding effects in every corner of life. With Orange County family courts closed until at least April 24, Shaffer says that to her, “limiting access to the court is about the greatest thing that could happen in family law.”
Litigation has become a last resort, forcing spouses and their lawyers to collaborate, or at least, de-escalate.
“I’ve suggested to my clients that we just pause,” Shaffer said from her office in north Laguna. “There is really nothing to figure out, except to care for our children, stay healthy and make sure basic needs are met. Trying to mastermind anything seems futile, and we can’t finalize settlements until we see what happens with the markets. In other words, we can’t divvy assets we can’t value. However, I do encourage establishing estate plans and healthcare directives.”
Shaffer has practiced family law in Los Angeles and Orange Counties for 27 years, maintaining a solo practice in Laguna Beach since her eldest child entered kindergarten at El Morro 13 years ago. She earned a law degree from the University of San Diego after graduating from UC Santa Barbara.
“I’ve spent many, many years as a family law attorney cultivating a client base that prioritizes the well-being of family, in whatever form,” she said. “My goal is to maximize outcomes for all. This means that most of my clients work in a mediated setting, or each has a lawyer who is settlement-minded. Divorce is hard enough.”
In late March, she began fielding calls from parents who felt their co-parent was not adequately abiding by the restrictions imposed by the statewide stay-at-home order.
“For example, what if one parent is a doctor or an otherwise essential employee who still wants to have custodial time with the children?” Shaffer said. “Over the weeks, restrictions became more specifically defined, but in the beginning, it was confusing and perhaps a matter of personal judgment. In every case involving children, clients unable to arrive at a consensus went the traditional route and asked a judge to decide.”
There must have been a rush of parents seeking judicial intervention, Shaffer surmises, because ultimately, Orange County’s Family Law Supervising Judge issued an order stating: “A parent is not permitted to deny parenting time based on the other parent’s unwillingness to discuss their precautionary measures taken, or belief that the other parent’s precautions are insufficient.”
Situations of domestic violence or abuse are an exception, and the courts remain available to address this. However, a person in an abusive situation is best served to immediately dial 911.
“It’s been interesting to me to observe the quarantine’s effects in this sense: once you figure out that there’s nowhere to direct the negative energy, you come to terms with it, Shaffer noted. “You can’t call your lawyer and take the other person to court. People have to deal with one another. This, I think, will result in more intentional agreements.”