The “Plain Language Movement” has been afoot for many years in the United States, seeking to make legal documents accessible to a broad swath of intended readers. In Washington, the Pro Se Project was created to improve self-represented litigant’s access to the courts by improving pattern court forms. Twenty-four other states also have extensive plain language court forms for use in family law and other areas.
IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis was interviewed recently on Divorce Source Radio, a resource for individuals and families going through divorce. According to Kourlis, the challenge for IAALS and others is to explore how we can “create a system that would nurture people through it to the extent possible . . . while still achieving the separation of legal rights and responsibilities that are associated with divorce.”
Access to justice is by no means a new conversation in the United States, but it has been a frequent topic of conversation over the last few months. The issue took to the international stage last Thursday and Friday when the United Nations Human Rights Committee asked the U.S. to account for its growing civil justice gap, with two worrisome trends dominating the discussion.
A proposed amendment to the South Carolina constitution purports to change the waiting period for a no-fault divorce from 365 days to 150 days. Opponents argue that shortening the waiting period will lead to an increase in divorce, while proponents believe that the one year waiting period creates financial problems for couples and unneeded stress for children.
It is undisputed that divorce can be a costly endeavor for families, but a recent study from Great Britain suggests that the economic impact of divorce extends far beyond the family unit. This month, Great Britain’s Welfare Minister released alarming statistics from a recent study by the Relationships Foundation. The study estimated that family breakdown costs the country £46 billion a year—£1,541 for every taxpayer.
Utah requires divorcing couples to attend a two-hour seminar, and one lawmaker has proposed splitting the seminar into separate segments, the first of which occurring earlier in the process to help remind couples that reconciliation is an option. Meanwhile, a bill in Alabama would require couples with children to take a class designed to increase parents’ sensitivity to their children’s needs.
The San Diego Superior Court has implemented a new pilot program that allows couples to complete a simple divorce in just one day. The program has only a few requirements and is designed to foster collaboration between the parties so that the process can move swiftly toward less-adversarial resolution.
In a classic example of “two heads are better than one,” a group of stakeholders and legislators has come together to accomplish a substantial compromise on parental responsibility legislation and the family court process in Minnesota. The group took what were two sets of polarized opinions and came to a compromise that encompasses changes to parenting time, custody issues, and other family court processes in the state.
Recently, Natalie Knowlton and I provided an update to the Colorado legal community on the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families at the University of Denver—a model with national implications. The Resource Center was developed by the Honoring Families Initiative as an out-of-court alternative for families. I encourage readers to become familiar with our program and the impact we have had to-date.
This year, with the economy coming back from the “great recession,” the divorce rate has spiked from its 40-year low in 2009. Now that the economy is more stable, and people are feeling financially secure, those who were postponing divorce are starting to seriously consider it again.
IAALS would like to extend our sincere congratulations to Andrew Schepard on his designation as the Max Schmertz Distinguished Professor of Law at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University. Andy has been a longtime friend of IAALS, working closely with us on a range of issues.
It comes as no surprise to those who work in or with the courts that many litigants these days proceed through the civil and family court system without an attorney. The figures collected and released in Indiana’s recent State of the Judiciary show that over half of all civil and family law litigants in 2013 were self-represented. And such high rates are not unique to Indiana.
While divorce is a legal process, anyone who has gone through it knows that it is also an emotional process. The reality is that the ‘emotional divorce’ and the ‘legal divorce’ most often have to be managed at the same time, but the legal process can make a significant difference in one’s experience, both during the process and for years after.
A pair of Illinois attorneys are offering a unique model for couples looking to end their marriage. Sandra Young and Brian Garvey are pioneering “The Weekend Divorce,” which builds on the collaborative law model and offers divorcing couples settlement on all issues over the course of a weekend. This new model comes in the wake of widespread experimentation with out-of-court alternatives for separating and divorcing families.
Forthcoming statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth show an increase in cohabitation among new parents, and demographers say this trend is likely to continue. The preliminary figures show that—for the first time—the percentage of unmarried couples who move in together after pregnancy surpasses the percentage that chose to marry.
In a recent article in The Colorado Lawyer, Judge Elizabeth Starrs gives practitioners insight from the bench, including helpful practice tips and an explanation of the Denver domestic relations process. Many of her observations suggest the benefits of a structured, in-court process for domestic relations disputes, with an emphasis on decreasing the adversarial nature of the proceedings—an approach also advocated by the Honoring Families Initiative.
Documentary film Divorce Corp opens in cities across the country today, drawing critical attention to family courts and those involved in the system. The Honoring Families Initiative recognizes that cost, complexity, and access are issues in the family court system, and IAALS will be participating on a panel discussion about possible solutions following a screening of the movie in Denver on January 12, which is open to the public.
France is considering a proposal that would allow divorcing couples who are in agreement on their issues to divorce without appearing before a judge. Nearly half of French marriages end in divorce, and 54 percent of these divorces are uncontested. Rather than potentially delaying the process in these cases, the “divorce by mutual consent” proposal would authorize court clerks to approve divorces.
A recent survey asked respondents for their opinions on both court and non-court proceedings for divorcing couples. Overall, only 51 percent of those surveyed indicated they would consider non-court alternatives and only one-fourth believed that non-court proceedings protect parties’ rights. These findings suggest a lack of understanding about out-of-court solutions for families that are often less stressful and less expensive than lengthy in-court proceedings.
Studies on predictors of divorce abound. Among the more recent is a study exploring a connection between the intensity of one’s smile—as memorialized in a yearbook picture—and the likelihood of divorce. Individuals who smiled the least in their photos were five times more likely to divorce when compared with those who smiled the most intensely.
Recent studies are shedding new light on the impact of divorce on society and the individual. According one study, based on data collected beginning in 1948, divorce may be “contagious” and that having a friend who is divorced dramatically increases one’s chances of divorce. And, another study found that divorced people were two times more likely to die from the most-preventable causes of accidents than their married counterparts.
Recent statistics from the United Kingdom show a drop in family mediation referrals, which have fallen an average of 26 percent from April to June 2013, compared to the same period last year. A number of possible reasons have been given to account for this drop, including a cut in legal aid funding for family law cases, following which courts have reported a substantial increase in cases filed.
Drawing attention to the costs of high-end divorce, Justice Matthew Cooper of the New York Supreme Court recently refused to go along with longstanding legal precedent that assigns responsibility for attorneys’ fees in divorce cases to the party with the most assets. Justice Cooper made his ruling in the three-year divorce case of hedge fund manager George Sykes, which has accumulated approximately $1 million in legal fees to-date.
On September 3, the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families at the University of Denver opened its doors to metro-area families. The Center is a model for providing interdisciplinary, out-of-court solutions to separating and divorcing families. This IAALS “out-of-court model” is part of an international trend towards less adversarial separation and divorce processes.