The Effects of the Economic Downturn on Family Law

  • 19 Jul 2012

In the past, it has been estimated that about half of every marriages end in divorce. In a United States Census Bureau Survey completed in 1996, 34% of all men, ages 40-49 and 37% of all women, ages 40-49 answered that they had been divorced at some point in their lives. However, during the recent recession and economic downturn, divorce rates have dropped significantly. According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, of the 16,000 lawyers polled, 40% said that divorce fillings had decreased 40% since the recession. [1] [2]

Recent estimates show that a divorce can cost an individual anywhere from $8,187 to $132,600, depending on the complexity of the divorce. Due to the high legal fees, as well as financial uncertainty, many couples have chosen to stay together simply because they are unable to afford getting divorced. [3] [4]

Some people, however, have chosen to take matters in their own hands and choosing to represent themselves in divorce cases, a practice known as “Pro Se” representation. A California survey found that 49% of petitioners and 81% of respondents are self-represented. Recently, the state of Texas controversially decided to provide forms to individuals that would assist in Pro Se divorces. While this assistance has helped individuals by eliminating the cost of lawyer fees, it has given rise to other problems. [5][6][7]

Complex divorces involving Pro Se representation, such as those involving property, children and income, has led to chaos at family courts. Family Court clerks have had an especially increased work load, as they often are called upon to help the Pro Se parties navigate through the divorce process. Pro Se litigants often times lack the legal knowledge to recognize the validity of their case, as well as what the best means of argument are. Additionally, judges are often found having to worry about basic procedural issues as opposed to the divorce itself. A poll of judges found that 88% believe that procedural errors were a problem in Pro Se cases. Procedural issues and paperwork that are standard practice to lawyers can easily be confused by Pro Se litigants, which lead to judges having to spend time explaining what would be basic information to a professional attorney. Another survey found that 62% of judges polled said that the outcomes in Pro Se cases were worse than those involving representation.  [8][9][10][11][12]

Although Pro Se litigants are representing themselves, they are still held to the same procedural standard that a traditional attorney would be held to. By law, Judges are unable to provide legal advice, no matter how confused the Pro Se party may be. Although other states may choose to follow Texas’s lead in providing DIY divorce forms, until there is adequate legal information available for individuals who wish to represent themselves, it can reasonably be inferred that the problems involved in Pro Se litigation will continue to be the norm. [13]



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