If you thought pre-printed legal forms were only used by lawyers to handle transactional work more efficiently, guess again. The Texas Supreme Court established the Uniform Forms Task Force last year. Its goal is to create divorce forms that poor Texans who cannot afford divorce lawyers can use to aid them in the divorce process. Texas is currently one of only thirteen states where divorcing couples cannot simply fill out a form to terminate their marriage.
Divorce attorneys are, not surprisingly, up in arms over this. They argue that the legal system is too complicated to be handled with a mere form. Some of them point out that not only litigants who are poor will use the forms, but rather, that litigants who can afford an attorney but think they can navigate the divorce courts on their own without an attorney will also take advantage of the forms’ availability. What is needed instead, they argue, is increased funding to legal aid to help poor people in divorce court.
Supporters of the Task Force argue, however, that lawyers are merely using this argument to hide their true fear-that the uniform divorce forms will hurt their pocketbook. They contend that the forms are necessary to ensure that poor people get the legal assistance they need when they choose to terminate their marriage.
Since Texans do not have access to divorce forms, the ones who cannot afford to retain lawyers represent themselves in court, and they have been using divorce forms that were not officially approved by the Supreme Court. The litigants either buy these forms off the internet or get them for free from TexasLawHelp.org. However, often, county courts do not accept these forms.
Although many agree that the forms are not a perfect solution, at least the forms the Task Force is creating are easier to understand and can be used for simple divorces which are uncontested. Supporters of the Task Force initiative argue that lawyers’ time and expertise are better suited to more complex cases where their knowledge and training can be brought to bear.
The Texas Bar approved a motion to request that the Supreme Court suspend the activities of the Uniform Task Force while the Bar studies the issue further. The Bar planned to propose a separate commission that will examine the issue for several months. Opponents argue that the issue does not need to be studied further. They claim it is just another delaying tactic. The Supreme Court, however, overruled their request and indicated that the work of the Task Force would continue. The Supreme Court expects to receive the recommendations of the Task Force next month and to review them in May. The Supreme Court urged the Bar to work with the Task Force instead of against it by coming up with suggestions for improving the forms.
If one asks why legal aid is not helping poor litigants in divorce court, apparently, legal aid does not have enough resources to help all qualified people. The forms are designed to help the 80% of the people who qualify for legal aid but are not receiving it.
Other states already have standardized divorce forms and according to proponents of the Task Force, the forms do work, and they do not harm divorce attorneys’ ability to earn a living and find work.