COMMENTARY: Attorney referees play an important role for the courts and at FOC


By Marie E. Matyjaszek

What exactly is an Attorney Referee at the Friend of the Court (FOC)? Much like the general public, we are people just like you (except with J.D.s and an overwhelming desire to wear black and white striped jerseys). Attorney referees have a special function, if I do say so myself, in the judicial system. We act in a quasi-judicial fashion, meaning we can play pseudo judge, conducting hearings and issuing orders.

Keep in mind that this is just a general overview of what functions referees may perform, and each county usually has its own tweaks to the assigned duties. At the FOC, referees are used for hearings on all motions in domestic relations cases, except for increases or decreases on spousal support as that topic is not within the scope of the statute (see MCL 552.507). Most hearings are set by way of a referral directly from the court after a party files a motion, and some stem from administrative reviews of child support that a party has objected to. We also conduct joint meetings and mediations.

During referee hearings, testimony is taken from the parties and witnesses and the referee issues a recommendation and proposed order on the contested issues. Depending on the circumstances, a referee may be able to issue an interim order for the parties to follow as they wait out the 21-day objection period on the recommendation.

If a party properly objects, the judge determines what happens next. The court can adopt the referee's recommended order in whole or in part, grant the relief the objecting party is asking for, or hold a new hearing with the judge.

Some referees will give the parties an opportunity to settle the matter prior to conducting the hearing, which offers a less litigious option. Most parties prefer to maintain control over their lives instead of having a stranger like the referee or judge, decide what they will do. The parties may not like or love the agreement, but they know they can live with it. Putting an end to the fighting also helps put an end to attorney fees. If the parties can reach a consent, it is often drafted into an order and forwarded to the court for entry at the hearing, allowing them to have resolution the same day.

Other common referee duties include approving orders before they are entered with the court to ensure that they comply with the law and are processed properly. We provide legal assistance to the office, confer with judges and their attorneys, and prepare motion dockets. In some counties, referees work both the family and juvenile docket, while others are limited to one area.

While we may not blow a whistle for misconduct on the field, we try our best to level it for everyone.
Marie E. Matyjaszek is an attorney referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own.