A Texas Supreme Court advisory board on Friday debated forms intended to make it easier and less expensive for poor Texans to get divorced — hearing from proponents who say the forms would make the legal system more accessible, and attorneys' groups who argue family law is too complicated to manage without a lawyer.
Last year, the court created a task force to design forms so that people who can't afford attorneys could participate in legal proceedings, such as filing for divorces, especially in simple cases involving no children and few assets. Texas is one of just 13 states where couples can't simply fill out a court-approved form and file for divorce.
But the State Bar of Texas has opposed the proposed forms — arguing that family law is too complex and expressing concern that allowing people to practice it themselves could encourage them to tackle other legal endeavors on their own.
The task force presented its proposed forms to the full advisory board, which spent hours debating them. It's unclear, however, whether members will vote to approve them to the Supreme Court. And, whether they formally approve the forms or not, the court will still consider the forms on its own.
Patricia McAllister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, said 6 million Texans qualify for court-assisted legal aid but there are only enough pro bono attorneys and other legal groups to assist about 20 percent of them. She said that even if every licensed lawyer in the state agreed to represent a low-income client for free, only about 40 percent of demand would be met.
"What you're seeing is that there are more people who are coming to the courthouse to represent themselves because they can't get help through legal aid and they cannot afford a lawyer," said McAllister, whose group was created in 2001 with the support of the state Supreme Court and the state bar.
Do-it-yourself legal forms are available for purchase on the Internet or at Office Depot — but they are sometimes are not admissible in Texas courts. Steve Bresnen, a lobbyist for the Texas Family Law Foundation, suggested the task force's proposed forms may not hold up in court either, saying they were "riddled with errors."
Both Bresnen and Tom Vick, speaking on behalf of the state bar, bristled at suggestions that attorneys around the state oppose the forms because they could ultimately lead to decreased income for family law lawyers.
"The forms that are before you aren't going to cost any private lawyer to lose a dollar," Vick said.
During Friday's discussion, board members raised the point that some Texas judges currently refuse to accept forms that have been filed without aid of an attorney, while others demand forms in English. By approving its own forms, the Supreme Court could compel judges to accept divorce forms more readily.
But others questioned how the state could guarantee the people using the forms are actually too poor to afford an attorney.
Judy Warne, a district judge in Harris County, suggested that poor Texans should be encouraged to wait until they had enough money to hire a lawyer before filing for divorce.
"They don't understand the law," Warne said. "They don't need a form. They need advice."
As an alternative, she said that a hotline could connect poor couples looking to separate with lawyers that charge as little as $500 for an uncontested divorce. The state bar also suggested requiring lawyers just out of law school to take more pro bono cases.
By Will Weissert, The Associated Press
Source: The Houston Chronicle