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Hewitt v. Hollahan

Decided: July 1, 1959.


Price, Gaulkin and Foley. The opinion of the court was delivered by Gaulkin, J.A.D.


[56 NJSuper Page 376] In this action, instituted by the Director of Welfare of the Town of Belleville in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, defendant Albert Hollahan was ordered to pay his wife $106.40 per month, and he appeals.

From time to time we have been compelled to point out that imprecise pleadings often lead to error. Cf. State v. Arbus , 54 N.J. Super. 76 (App. Div. 1959); Board of Education, Woodbridge Tp. v. Kane Acoustical Co. , 51 N.J. Super. 319 (App. Div. 1958). The reason for this must be fairly obvious. A vague complaint, full of generalities, frequently indicates that the pleader has not thought through his cause of action, and does not yet know precisely upon what theory he will present his case. Consequently, unless he learns more about his case before he comes to trial, he may come without the evidence necessary to support the only theory upon which he can prevail.

A vague pleading in turn tends to confuse the adversary and the court. The defendant may understand plaintiff's pleading differently than the plaintiff does himself, while the court may make even a third interpretation of it.

We regret that we are unable to decide this appeal without pointing out that this case is an example of the foregoing. The complaint is by "Mr. John J. Hewett (Director) * * * residing at Dept. of Welfare * * *," who "being duly sworn on her [sic] oath deposes and says" (emphasis ours):

"* * * that Mr. Albert Hollahan defendant in this action * * * altho capable to do so has for the past several weeks refused and failed to provide adequate support and maintenance of his family consisting of wife -- Catherine * * * contrary to 'An Act concerning the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court,' Revised Statutes , 1951 Title 44:1-1 to 44:1-160 Approved December 20, 1947 and the supplements thereto and amendments thereof.

Deponent therefore prays that the said defendant may be summoned to appear or that a warrant issue to answer said complaint; and that the defendant and all parties within the jurisdiction of the Court be dealt with as law and justice and the best interests of the wife may require."

We do not know what is meant by the reference to "Revised Statutes, 1951" in this context, nor does any part of Title 44:1-1 to 44:1-160 appear to have been approved December 20, 1947. More important, no defendant should be required to go through 160 sections of a statute,

plus all "the supplements thereto and amendments thereof," to find out what he is charged with, especially when the 160 sections and "the supplements thereto and amendments thereof" contain various and differing bases of liability. If by the reference to "An Act concerning the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, Revised Statutes 1951," and to a "warrant" as well as a summons, it is intended to include those provisions of Title 2 A which come within the jurisdiction of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, the confusion becomes really confounded. Cf. State v. Monroe , 30 N.J. 160 (1959). No defendant should be called upon at his peril to guess correctly whether he is being charged with civil or criminal liability, and why. Due process means more than mere notice to a person that he is a defendant -- he is entitled to a complaint which informs him of the legal and factual basis of the charge which he is called upon to face. If it be intended to charge him under more than one statute or section, and different facts are required to prove each charge, the complaint should be in separate counts. R.R. 6:4-1, 6:6-3.

It has been pointed out that our Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts, as well as our municipal courts, have come of age; and that they possess far greater powers of fine, imprisonment, and the imposition of money judgments than in days gone by. State v. Monroe, supra; Slocum v. Krupy , 11 N.J. Super. 81 (App. Div. 1951). Cf. State v. Mull , 30 N.J. 231 (1959); State v. Schrier , 30 N.J. 241 (1959); Krieger v. Jersey City , 27 N.J. 535 (1958). With that maturity, and with those powers, there has come to these courts the correlative responsibility to see to it that their pleadings and their procedures comport with the highest standards of due process. Cf. State v. Monroe, supra.

The appellant says in his brief that "objection was made to the complaint on the ground that it was too broad." This is not denied in respondent's brief. However, no stenographic record ...

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