Jurisdiction over family court matters is with the Superior Court. While individual courts may vary slightly as to operational rules, the substantive law is contained in the California Family Code and the California Code of Civil Procedure. A case is commenced by filing and serving the appropriate papers with the court. Most Superior Courts have a "self help" center and many have web sites that contain critical information, forms and references to local rules that may impact how a case is handled.
In general, courts have short hearings ("law and motion" hearings), settlement conferences and trials (also referred to as "long cause" hearings). Most commonly, the short hearings do not involve the testimony of witnesses. In addition to these traditional hearings, it is possible to schedule an emergency hearing, referred to as an "ex parte" hearing. By law, this type of hearing is reserved for true emergencies. Local courts vary as to how these hearings are scheduled and the local rules of the court must be consulted.
The volume of family law cases is extremely high and the resources of all courts are being strained due to the absence of sufficient funding by the State. For this reason, it is imperative that parties file the correct documents with the court, adhere to procedures and come to court prepared to address the issues.
If your matter concerns child custody or parenting issues, you should anticipate participating in mediation with a trained professional unless you have already reached a full agreement with the other parent. The courts have this service available through Family Court Services, generally at no cost to the parents. Alternatively, there are many private mediators who provide similar services for parents in conflict. The parents pay for the services of private mediators.