In some circuits in Florida, like Jacksonville, St. Augustine and other surrounding areas, cases involving divorce, paternity, child support or other family law matters may be heard in front of a magistrate instead of a judge, if the parties do not object. The magistrate is given the power to hear cases and make rulings based on the facts and evidence presented. Once a magistrate makes a ruling, the order is submitted to the Judge to sign-off. If a party disagrees with a magistrate’s findings, then that party can file for exceptions to the magistrate’s report based on the evidence versus the decision contained in the report. In so doing, the judge will then hold a hearing for the parties to argue why the court should accept or deny the magistrate’s report.
When the hearing is held regarding the exceptions, the party that filed the exceptions is required to provide the Judge and the other party with a transcript of the hearing. At the hearing, there is a presumption, in accordance with Florida case law that the court must accept the magistrate’s report if the findings are supported by competent and substantial evidence. When issues of credibility arise, such as the credibility of a witness’s testimony, the court should reject the magistrate’s findings if the findings are stated in error to the testimony evidenced in the transcript.
Basically, a court is required to give discretion to the magistrate’s findings and report unless the report seems to be wrong on its face. The court does not get to change the ruling simply because it disagrees with the magistrate’s conclusions, if those conclusions are based on the evidence reflected in the transcript.
If the court finds that the evidence does not support the report, then it may send the case back to the magistrate for reconsideration. Once the magistrate writes a report, even the second time, the parties still have a right to file for exceptions and start the process over again. Ultimately, however, the court is tied to the magistrate’s report if the report has findings that can and are substantiated by the evidence reflected in the transcript.
A transcript is a record of the entire hearing, often recorded and then typed by a court reporter. In Jacksonville, the hearings are recorded without a court reporter present, but the recording is then sent to a court reporter to be transcribed. The transcription is a reflection of the statements of the parties and their attorneys and is understood to be under oath since the parties are witnesses are sworn in during the hearing by the magistrate or court reporter. These transcripts can be used in not just the exception hearing, but also later if a party says something differently than was previously stated under oath. For example, if a trial later occurs and the Mother says, “I do not make more than $12 per hour,” but in the last hearing said that she makes $15 per hour, then her prior statement can used to show an inconsistency and go to her credibility as a witness.
You may speak with a family law attorney to better understand the legal process as it relates to your case.