Do-It-Yourself Divorce Forms Will Burden Lower Courts
The Texas Supreme Court last year approved do-it-yourself divorce forms, and now they are discovering they have to teach people the legal system. This is causing a greater burden on lower courts, slowing down the system.
A recent incident in a Houston civil court serves as a glaring example of the danger faced by indigent Texans when they attempt a DIY divorce.
The judge thought there was something familiar about the woman representing herself to prove up her divorce. The judge remembered her from a Child Protective Services case, and that she had children, but the woman checked a box on the form indicating no kids.
“Yes, I have three children,” responded the woman. “But the form says how many children are involved, and I’ve been careful not to involve any of them in this divorce.”
Only the judge’s good memory kept the woman from a mistake that might have required her to come back to court to assure her child-custody rights. The judge in this case had to stop proceedings to explain the problem and set the record straight. In many urban areas, the courts have nearly ground to a halt under the pressure of nonlawyers trying to handle their own cases. Explaining the legal system to pro se litigants inevitably falls on judges and their clerks. And it slows the civil system down for everyone.
Advocates of forms say divorce lawyers are proposed simply because they don’t want to cut off a potential business source, but family lawyers know that Texans need lawyers, and not just forms. There is too much information and fine print that can cause a tremendous amount of problems, if simply overlooked or not considered, when filling out a form. Divorce is a difficult time for any person involved, and trying to have everyone just fill out a form and call it done, can be dangerous.
Diana Friedman, a Dallas divorce attorney and chair of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas, has an alternative solution:
Our solution is a project called Family Law Cares, which is working to provide pro bono legal services to that indigent population.
We are working to organize Texas attorneys in a systematic fashion, using effective communication techniques and technology, to enhance our pro bono initiatives. Most family lawyers handle some divorce cases pro bono. Our goal is to have the family lawyers train as many attorneys as possible from other practice areas to handle rudimentary family cases. We will also include the thousands of law school graduates who need courtroom experience to help them get a job, as well as family law clinics in most of the state’s law schools.