As of January 3, 2005, the procedures to address custody, partial custody, and custody modification requests have been changed to comply with the revised Berks County Local Rules and Rules for Voluntary Mediation in Custody Actions, located at B.R.C.P. 1940.1 et seq. It is mandatory for parents and/or the legal caretakers of a child or children to attend an adult education seminar as the first step in resolving co-parenting custody issues relating to the child(ren). Upon completion of the education seminar, all parents and/or legal caretakers must attend a mediation orientation session, followed by a conciliation conference, if the parties are unable to resolve their issues themselves.
STEP ONE: FILING
You must prepare the necessary legal paperwork to request an action regarding a custody matter which complies with a formal court document. It is your responsibility to prepare the forms and provide the proper pleadings to the court for full, shared, partial, or modification of custody. It is recommended that you retain a lawyer or seek legal advice prior to submitting any pleadings to the court. IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A LAWYER BUT WISH TO RETAIN ONE YOU CAN CONTACT: THE BERKS COUNTY BAR ASSOCIATION, 544-546 Court Street, Reading, PA 19603 (610) 375-4591, and please advise that this is for a case regarding custody.
Once you file your paperwork in the Prothonotary’s Office on the second floor of the Berks County Courthouse, Family Court Administration will complete a Scheduling Order listing the dates for your education seminar, the mandatory mediation orientation session and the conciliation conference. THE MOVING PARTY WILL BE RESPONSIBLE TO PAY HIS OR HER FILING/MEDIATION FEES AT THE TIME OF FILING, UNLESS YOU FILE A WAIVER OR A REQUEST TO BYPASS MEDIATION. Once your fees are paid, you will receive the Scheduling Order via First Class mail. If you are unable to pay the fees, you may apply through the Prothonotary’s office to proceed in Forma Pauperis.
STEP TWO: SERVICE
Within 10 business days of the filing of the original pleadings in the Prothonotary's Office, you must serve the Respondent (the other party) with all of the following:
- pleading time stamped by the Prothonotary
- Waiver or Petition to Bypass Mediation, if applicable
- a copy of these instructions
You are required to file proof of service indicating the date, time, and manner of how the Respondent was served with these documents within ten (10) business days of when you filed. If you served the Respondent by certified mail you must attach the returned green card with the Respondent's signature (no one else's signature will be acceptable), along with your verification of that signature.
STEP THREE: EDUCATION SEMINAR
Parties must complete the adult education seminar called "Children in the Middle" separately before they can proceed to the Mediation Orientation Session. The Scheduling Order indicate whether or not the seminar is required for each party involved.
In an emergency, a party may reschedule his/her education seminar, but both adults must complete it and file a Certificate of Attendance in the Prothonotary’s office prior to the scheduled mediation orientation session. Any rescheduling of the seminar must be arranged by contacting the Family Guidance Center directly, at (610) 374-4963.
You will need to obtain a court order granting you modifications or exemptions from these rules. In particular, you will need to obtain a court order if you want:
- to obtain a waiver from having to attend the education portion of the program; or
- to bypass the mediation orientation session for any reason other than domestic violence or where the parties have already reached an agreement; or
- to request a continuance of any prescheduled custody conciliation conference.
STEP FOUR: MEDIATION ORIENTATION SESSION
After completing the education seminar, the parents and or legal caretakers must proceed to the mandatory mediation orientation session, unless waived or exempt by court order. This session will provide an opportunity to learn about mediation as well as attempt to negotiate a detailed, workable, parenting agreement outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding. The mediation orientation session will be approximately 1½ hours in length and will be conducted by a private mediator. The mediation orientation session date is included in the original scheduling order. If a conflict exists, please contact the Mediation Program Coordinator at (610) 478-6539. Exemption from participation in the mediation orientation session, for any reason other than domestic violence or resolution of the issues by the parties, must be requested by petition to the court. If you file a Waiver with the Prothonotary, you may then proceed directly to the conciliation conference. If you file a Petition to Bypass Mediation, you must appear before the court and get a court order permitting you to bypass the mediation orientation session.
After completing the mediation orientation session, there are several alternatives of how you may proceed:
- Parties who reach an agreement at the end of their mediation orientation session may proceed to an attorney to prepare a court order based upon their Memorandum of Understanding.
- If you do not have an attorney, you may ask the mediator to provide you with a Custody Packet, which will enable the parties to transform their Memorandum of Understanding into a "Stipulation" [which means "agreement"] and Custody Order. In order for your agreement to constitute an enforceable court order, you must present the Custody order and Stipulation to the Family Court Custody Office for presentation to a judge for signature.
- Parties who have reached resolution on some of the issues in the initial mediation session but have additional issues may continue in mediation with the assigned mediator or may select a mediator from the roster provided for this purpose. Payments for subsequent sessions shall be made directly to the mediator at his or her established rate. The parties may request that the scheduled conciliation conference be continued for up to thirty (30) days for additional time in mediation. This may be extended one time only for an additional thirty (30) day period for good cause shown. In the event that you wish to continue in mediation for these additional time periods, you will need to file a request for a continuance of your scheduled conciliation conference.
- Parties who cannot reach any form of an agreement in mediation and continue to require the court's intervention will have to attend the scheduled custody conciliation conference
STEP FIVE: CUSTODY CONCILIATION CONFERENCE
Custody Conciliation is held before a Custody Master, who will enter a recommended order at the close of the Conciliation Conference. The recommendation may also include proposed sanctions if any of the aforesaid fees are not paid by the parties.
The parties shall be responsible to pay:
- the Prothonotary filing fee (exact dollar amount can be verified on the 2nd floor of the Berks County Courthouse in the Prothonotary's office) and a $20 surcharge.
- his/her mediation fee payable to the Prothonotary as indicated in the order, unless he/she has filed an Application to Proceed in Forma Pauperis or a Petition to Bypass Mediation. If a party has filed a Waiver for reasons of domestic violence, but consents to mediate, he/she must also pay this fee. If the application to proceed in forma pauperis and/or the petition to bypass are denied, the fee must be paid by Plaintiff before the matters will be scheduled.
- his/her education fee payable to the Family Guidance Center as indicated in the order.
THE FILING PARTY’S FEES MUST BE PAID AT THE TIME OF FILING, UNLESS EXEMPT AS NOTED ABOVE. The Respondent has ten (10) business days from the date of the service of the Pleadings and Scheduling Order to pay his or her fees owed to the Prothonotary (unless exempt).The only acceptable forms of payment shall be by cash, money order, cashier's, attorney law firm or certified check, made payable to the Prothonotary. No credit cards or personal checks will be accepted.
Failure to appear for either the education seminar and/or the mediation orientation session will result in those moneys being forfeited by the party(ies). No party will be permitted to participate in the education seminar or mediation session without the fees having been paid in a timely manner
Exemption requests for financial relief for all or part of the fees assigned to this program must be presented in the form of a Petition to Proceed in Forma Pauperis, which is available in the Prothonotary’s office. The application must be filed at least 10 days prior to the date of the program for which the exemption is requested.
Exemption requests for attendance for any or all steps of the program, for any reason other than domestic violence or agreement/resolution of the issues, must be made by filing a petition for a hearing/argument before the assigned judge. The procedure in all cases regarding domestic violence shall be as follows: The court shall not mandate any party who has been a subject of domestic violence or child abuse, at any time within the past 24 months, to attend the mediation portion of the program. In the case where a domestic violence waiver has been submitted, the mediation session will not be scheduled or will be cancelled and the parties shall proceed to the scheduled custody conciliation. The domestic violence waiver form is available in the Prothonotary’s Office and MUST BE SUBMITTED NO LATER THAN TEN (10) BUSINESS DAYS PRIOR TO THE SCHEDULED MEDIATION ORIENTATION SESSION. You may consent to mediate by signing the applicable portion of the Waiver form.
Failure to comply with the Scheduling Order by the moving party (Petitioner) may result in the dismissal of the current request for court action. Failure to comply by the non-moving party (Respondent) will result in a rule to show cause why such party should not be held in contempt. Such rule may be returnable on a date certain. The Respondent will then be required to appear in court to explain to the Judge why he/she should not be held in contempt and/or suffer sanctions for failure to pay and/or appear. A bench warrant shall issue for any party failing to appear in court in accordance with the rule to show cause and that party shall be arrested by the Berks County Sheriff's Office and brought before the court.