Texas is one of only 13 states in which couples cannot simply fill out a form to begin ending their marriage. The Texas Supreme Court is on the verge of changing that, but some lawyers are trying to put a stop to what they say could be an oversimplification.
Last year, the Supreme Court — the state's highest civil court — created the Uniform Forms Task Force with the goal of making it easier for Texans who can't afford lawyers' fees to have access to the courts. Now, the task force has created divorce forms that, once approved by the Supreme Court, would be accepted in any Texas court.
Some lawyers who practice family law argue that the legal system is too complicated to be handled with just a form. And on Friday, the State Bar of Texas' board of directors voted to urge the Supreme Court to stop the process. Their critics, however, say the lawyers are worried more about their own bottom lines than about ensuring that poor people get access to the justice system.
Texans who can’t afford to hire lawyers have been representing themselves in court and using divorce forms not officially approved by the Supreme Court for years. But they often run into problems when county courts don’t accept the forms they buy from websites such as LegalZoom.com. Even free forms provided by TexasLawHelp.org may not be accepted in all Texas counties.
Patricia McAllister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, said she agrees that forms are not ideal. But she said the ones the task force has created are easier to understand and can be used for simple, uncontested divorces.
“Do you want volunteer lawyers taking uncontested cases, or do you want lawyers handling cases that are contested and more complex to bring their full force of knowledge to someone who’s involved in a really complex case?” she said.
McAllister said comments during the board's Friday meeting clarified the family law lawyers' real motivation.
“They are concerned about the impact to their own finances,” McAllister said.
The bar approved a motion to ask the Supreme Court to suspend the work of the Uniform Forms Task Force while the lawyer organization studies the issue. It plans to propose a separate commission that will examine the issue for six to nine months, said Bob Black, the State Bar president.
Some family law attorneys see problems with having forms widely available. Judge Judy Warne worried that people who were “too arrogant” — but not too poor — to hire a lawyer would have access to them.
“They don’t know what to do with them,” Warne said. “They think this is the magic form that’s going to fix everything.”
Divorce attorney Charles Hodges said that to help increase legal aid to the poor, “We don’t need forms, we need people out there.”
Other family law attorneys said at the meeting that they were not asked for their input when the task force began work on the forms.
Stewart Gagnon, a family law attorney and chairman of the Uniform Forms Task Force, disagreed.
“They have never suggested anything, except that everyone should be required to do more pro bono work,” he said.
McAllister pointed out that free forms are already available online at TexasLawHelp.org.
“The issue really isn’t, ‘Are there forms available and are they available to everybody?’” she said. “It’s whether or not there’s a form that’s available that the courts and the people who are using them can be assured that they comport with Texas law and are standardized.”
McAllister said that another study of the issue by the State Bar is unnecessary.
“It just further delays the forms," McAllister said. "I don’t think anyone questions that there are a significant number of poor people coming to the courthouse.”
The forms are meant to help the four out of five people who qualify for legal aid but do not receive it, said Harry Reasoner, chairman of the Texas Access to Justice Commission.
“This is a matter of alternatives,” Reasoner said. “Right now, tens of thousands of people have no assistance.”
From studying other states that use uniform forms, McAllister said, she has learned that “forms don’t harm the litigants, they don’t harm the ability of lawyers to earn a living, and they work.”