DALLAS, TX--()--Leaders of the Texas family law attorneys have declared this week (March 19-24) to be Family Law Access Week for the indigent and others struggling for justice in the court system.
“It would be like taking out someone’s gall bladder without consulting a physician”
Diana Friedman, chair of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas, and Brian Webb, head of the Texas Family Law Foundation, announced their groups’ intent to commemorate this week due to its historical significance. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right of criminal defendants in serious cases to have legal counsel provided for them if they cannot afford an attorney.
“We recognize the profound effect Gideon v. Wainwright had on individual rights in 1963,” says Friedman. “Criminal law deals with peoples’ freedom, but family law attorneys can affect the future prospects of litigants just as much. In both cases, the concept is the same. If our legal system is going to be available to all, they must have attorneys to help them instead of divorce forms.”
The Texas Supreme Court recently approved a set of do-it-yourself divorce forms that parties can bring to court to substitute for attorneys. In 2011, 58,000 Texas residents qualified for free legal services in civil cases, most of them divorces or other family law matters. The divorce forms are meant to take the place of legal counsel.
Friedman says Texas family lawyers are vehemently opposed to the divorce forms, which they believe are inadequate for any family law matter. Divorce forms put judges and court personnel in the position of dealing with an overflow of pro se litigants, she says, and they threaten to bring the court system to a standstill.
To Webb, it comes down to the definition of “access,” which he believes proponents of divorce forms have all wrong. “Is it access to give poor people a piece of paper that gets them into the courtroom?” he says. “We believe access means harnessing the power of the court system. Divorce forms do not provide access. Only experienced family law attorneys can do that.”
To provide the attorneys needed, the family lawyers have created Family Law Cares, a program to coordinate and organize pro bono efforts on behalf of the state’s indigent people facing divorce and other family law matters. Webb says this effort provides the major difference between Gideon and family lawyer access.
“We aren’t asking the state to pay for this program,” he says. “We intend to solve this problem through pro bono services, while Gideon mandated that taxpayer money be used to provide counsel.”
The Family Law Foundation and associated groups have also submitted legislation (S.B. 1261 and H.B 2878) designed to correct some of the inequities they perceive in the Supreme Court’s action. Opponents of these bills accuse family lawyers of supporting legislation that would “…be a mechanism for the courts or lawyers to prevent the poor from accessing the court with the forms….” This is a quote from Trish McAlister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, in a recent issue of Texas Lawyer.
In response, Friedman and Webb sent a letter to all Supreme Court justices saying, “Section 30.020 in the proposed bill explicitly guarantees the right of any Texan, rich or poor, to access the courts in civil cases and represent themselves…. To attribute that motive to our courts or Texas lawyers, who fund ATJ, is wrong-headed and cynical in the extreme.”
Family lawyers, says Webb, are merely trying to correct the mistakes of those who are inexperienced in their area of the law. “It would be like taking out someone’s gall bladder without consulting a physician," he says. “The results are guaranteed to be disastrous.”
The Texas Family Law Council is the governing body of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. The purpose of the Council and the Section is to advance the practice of family law for the benefit of Texas residents.