Going Before the Master – We’re Not Talking about Slavery*

Other than for a scheduling conference, clients and their attorneys go before the Master in Chancery for a Master’s Hearing in the circuit court to begin the trial of their case. A master is similar to a judge in that the master takes testimony and proposes the type of relief he/she feels should be granted to each party. The master then prepares a proposed order which is reviewed by the judge and, most typically, that proposed order is signed by the judge.

The Order that is signed by the judge establishes, from this beginning hearing, how the case is likely to turn out. That is why this beginning hearing before a master is so vitally important. Issues of custody, alimony, use and possession of the marital residence, and emergent issues such as repair of the roof at the marital residence and other issues often are dealt with at this first hearing. The order that is prepared by the master is a temporary order and it will continue until either a final order or another temporary order has been issued. A final order is prepared following the full trial which may last more than a day and that trial is called a “trial on the merits”.

There are rules of court that require all of your documents and evidence to be given to the opposing party. Those documents, information, and other evidence are referred to as “discovery”. If you do not provide your attorney with documents and related information (the “discovery”), your attorney may be unable to introduce the evidence needed to win your case. Today the courts have a management system which generates a scheduling order setting forth deadlines and specific due dates as well as the date for the Master’s Hearing and for a settlement conference. Discovery is due to the opposing party the earlier of the discovery deadline as set in the scheduling order or 10 days before the Master’s Hearing. If you don’t provide the necessary information and provide it timely, your case will be severely prejudiced. For example, you can prejudice your case by not answering interrogatories, failing to produce requested documents, failure to designate experts and by failing to “follow through”. Courts often do not permit extensions of specific court deadlines unless there are highly unusual circumstances involved.

The Master’s Hearing is typically 3 hours long, meaning each side has 90 minutes to present their case as well as to cross examine the opposing party and their witnesses. A client’s testimony must be clear, definite and succinct. Many clients feel the need to provide every detail about their case so that the master understands their need. However, here is where your lawyer can prepare you concerning what is most important and what needs to be expressed in direct and in cross-examination. Masters keep accurate time so each side has equal time to try their case. Preparation and organization for this first hearing is very important because the outcome of this hearing sets the tone for the future. Custody obtained at the Master’s Hearing often is not changed at the trial on the merits.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the master will render his recommendation that will be forwarded to the judge. You have the right to oppose (appeal) the master’s recommendations and that must be done almost immediately. Both sides can file their opposition and the procedure is called “filing exceptions” to the master’s recommendation. Thereafter, a hearing is scheduled before a judge who either enters the order that the master proposed or modifies the recommendation. At the hearing on the exceptions, judges have the discretion to take testimony but it will usually be limited to only areas that were covered in the exceptions.

Again, the initial master’s hearing is going to result in a temporary order, however, that order may be changed when there is an emergent need or when either party has not done something that he/she was ordered to do. Jurisdictions more often have the judge decide on violations of a temporary order as a subsequent master’s hearing typically is not the arena in which it is possible to have a second bite at the apple. The trial on the merits (the final) hearing is where the entire case is heard and is heard with sufficient time to achieve what is sought.

Fred Antenberg has effectively worked on Family Law Cases in Howard County and surrounding counties in Maryland. Contact Fred for a free initial consultation by calling 410 730 4404.

* "Master" is now referred to as a "Magistrate" in the Court System.