When I started helping consumers prepare their legal documents for divorce in 1996, between 50-55% of family law litigants were self-represented. There were no family law assistance centers or facilitators at the court to help people get through the process on their own. Legal Document Assistants, formerly known as Independent Paralegals were mostly part of a cottage industry plagued by unscrupulous fly-by-nights. And Robert Shapiro hadn’t yet created Legal Zoom.
Fast forward to 2011 where legal document assistants, have been legitimized for over 10 years. The new laws have helped to rid the legal marketplace of many, but not all non-attorney rip off artists. For those who have the most simple cases to resolve, the ability to follow directions, and plenty of time and patience to wait around, the courts have instituted self help centers in their effort to provide equal access to the justice system.
Even with the changes taking place, litigants, self represented along with those represented by an attorney, will face increased challenges in getting their cases resolved efficiently. At this time, more than 70% of litigants in family law courts are self-represented. Although many changes have occurred to help people filing IN PRO PER resolve their matters without having to hire an attorney, the demand for consumer friendly assistance in the legal field has outpaced the changes that are being made in the courts.
In response to the changes needed to be made which culminated in a 2007 CA Supreme Court case, known as Elkins v. Superior Court, a taskforce was formed (Elkins Task Force) to review the rules and methods of how courts would handle family law proceedings and make recommendations to the legislature in an effort to provide greater access to justice. These recommendations have resulted in 2 bills which were chaptered and will become effective January 1, 2012.
The first bill AB1050, which I wrote about in my blog in April 2011, deals with children over 14 years of age having a voice when custody is being determined by the court. The second bill AB 939 deals with testimony in hearings, among other things. The way the court has handled issues through motions and written declarations, which was previously adopted by rules to keep attorneys moving their cases along efficiently but apparently caused problems for the pro pers, will be changed so that live testimony will allowed under certain conditions.
It will be interesting to see how this effort to give litigants their due process will work with the court’s increasing budget constraints. It has already been predicted that family law cases in some of this state’s busier courts will take an average 18 months of time to resolve, compared to the 5 months it now takes.
If it all possible, it’s best to keep divorce out of the courtroom. More and more people are realizing that the idea of each party hiring an attorney to fight over property and children is ugly, destructive and way too expensive and that for the sake of everyone’s sanity, other methods should be explored. The new laws beginning in 2012, will likely bring more confusion and delay, and are just another reason to keep divorce out of court.
A better option is to hire an attorney who practices collaborative law. For those who want to represent themselves, the best thing to do if you have to go through a divorce is to get legal advice if you don’t know the law, get private mediation if you can’t resolve the issues on your own after you understand the law and then contract with a professional legal document preparation service for the preparation and filing of your documents so you can STAY OUT OF COURT.Tweet