Texas Supreme Court Panel to Consider Divorce Forms

The Texas Supreme Court is edging closer to a decision on forms that could make it cheaper and easier for low-income Texans to get divorced. But lawyers who support and oppose the prospect of divorce-by-form are no closer to agreement on how the process ought to work.

Last year, the Supreme Court, the state’s highest civil court, created the Uniform Forms Task Force to make forms for simple, uncontested divorce that would be accepted in any Texas court. Today, a Supreme Court advisory committee will discuss recommendations from family law attorneys who oppose the divorce forms and legal access advocates who say they are critical.

Some lawyers who practice family law have argued that the legal system is too complicated to be handled with just a form. On Jan. 20, after the task force finished drafting the forms, the State Bar of Texas' board of directors voted to urge the Supreme Court to stop the process.

In response, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to State Bar President Bob Black that the forms, as is the court’s usual practice, would be referred to the advisory committee. He encouraged the State Bar to present its recommendations to the advisory committee and to the court.

On Tuesday, members of the Family Law Section of the State Bar, the Texas Family Law Foundation and other family law attorneys presented their input: a 34-page report outlining why forms won’t work and why the Supreme Court should not approve them. They argue that people need lawyers to navigate the complex legal system.

“There’s some 80-odd defects in the forms that were produced,” said Steve Bresnen, an attorney and lobbyist for the Texas Family Law Foundation. “A set of forms is not going to solve this problem; I don’t think it’s going to make a dent in this problem.”

The group also submitted a five-page memo with proposals to improve legal access for the poor, none of which involve standardized forms. Their suggestions include requiring people who want to represent themselves in court to take a course on the litigation process, creating a hotline at the State Bar to connect needy people with pro bono lawyers, and making pro bono requirements for lawyers to get be certified in family law.

But Harry Reasoner, chairman of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, created by the Supreme Court in 2001 to help low-income people get access to legal assistance, said four out of five Texans who qualify for legal aid are turned away because there are not enough lawyers to help.

“A lot of the opposition has been based on the notion that people would be better off if they had a lawyer,” Reasoner said. “Well, of course. But that’s just not going to happen, so we’re trying to improve it in a realistic way.”

The Access to Justice Commission last week gave the advisory committee its own report, which concluded that forms would work. The report states that “there will never be enough lawyers to help the number of people who can’t afford legal assistance” and that 37 states already use court-approved divorce forms.

The advisory committee may not decide today whether it will approve the forms. And the Supreme Court is not bound by their recommendation. In Jefferson’s Jan. 25 letter to Black, he said he anticipated that the court would begin reviewing the recommendations in May.

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