No Binding Arbitration of Custody or Parenting-Time Issues, Court Says

A three-judge Appellate Division panel recently ruled out binding, nonappealable arbitration as a way to settle custody and parenting time disputes. Arbitration is a favored remedy for settling disputes, but parties can’t bargain away the court’s obligation under the principle of parens patriae to ensure the best interests of children, the appeals court said.

Christine and Samih Fawzy, broke off their 14-year marriage in 2005. When their case came up for trial in Middlesex County in 2007, they decided to submit to binding arbitration on all issues, including custody and parenting time. Judge Fred Keiser Jr. warned the decision would be final and could not be appealed but for changed economic circumstances.

After four sessions, the father began to sense the arbitration was going against him, so he sought to back out and have a plenary hearing. Judge Glenn Berman, who had inherited the case, denied the request, the arbitrator made an award and the judge entered a judgment of divorce.

The appellate court in reversing the parenting provisions of the arbitration award, cited Flaherty v. Flaherty, 97 N.J. 99 (1984). Custody and visitation issues weren’t before that court, but the justices said in dicta, “as we gain experience in the arbitration of child support and custody disputes, it may become evident that a child’s best interests are as well protected by an arbitrator as a judge.” The court went on to say, [i]f so, there would be no necessity for our de novo review…[h]owever because of the Court’s parens patriae tradition, at this time we prefer to err in favor of the child’s best interest.”

Brian Paul, who sought to enforce the arbitration on the wife’s behalf, says he will seek Supreme Court review, asking the justices to balance the public policy goals of limiting litigation and protecting children.

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