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Do-It-Yourself Divorces Could be Coming to Texas

April 12, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas - The state Supreme Court is considering whether to make it easier for low-income Texans to handle simple legal cases without hiring attorneys. An advisory committee will be hashing out recommendations Friday in Austin.

At issue is whether to require all Texas courts to accept standardized do-it-yourself legal forms in uncontested divorces.

While legal representation usually is the ideal way to go, says Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, there simply aren't enough attorneys offering free services to the millions of Texans who can't afford them.

"The problem is there are not enough lawyers taking these cases, or the funding to legal-aid organizations is inadequate these days to reach all of these people. We're just trying to find solutions."

He's weighing whether making it easier for people to represent themselves puts them at a legal disadvantage. However, he points out that many Texans already are downloading online legal forms and instructions which don't satisfy state requirements. It's all too common, he says, for pro se litigants to make repeated, unsuccessful attempts to bring cases to court without knowing what they're doing wrong.

"And so it just burdens the entire system, it frustrates the parties, and it wastes time and resources. It's a very inefficient system."

With 43 states already using some version of do-it-yourself divorce forms, Jefferson says, Texas probably could benefit from their experiences.

Attorney Karen Miller, who serves on the Supreme Court task force on behalf of the nonprofit Texas Legal Services Center, wants the high court to adopt standardized forms for divorces which don't involve children or property.

"Our courts belong to the public; our laws belong to the public, and if we've made them so complicated that we can't fathom that an individual could take care of their basic legal rights, we really need to rethink our system."

Also Friday, the State Bar of Texas will meet in Fort Worth to address ways to improve access to the legal system. The bar plans to craft alternative proposals to the self-help forms, which many lawyers think would cause more problems than they solve and encourage people who can afford attorneys to try going it alone. Critics such as Miller say some divorce lawyers appear overly invested in protecting law-firm incomes.

"At best, it's a paternalistic effort for lawyers to think we have to protect an individual from representing themselves, but, at worst, it most definitely looks greedy."

She says standardized forms would help free up legal- aid organizations to assist a greater number of low-income Texans with more serious and complex cases.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX