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Clinics Ease Bottlenecks

By Kari Santos | Nov. 2, 2014
News

Law Office Management

Nov. 2, 2014

Clinics Ease Bottlenecks

One-day divorce pilot programs in four counties target case backlog by helping couples without lawyers get through court faster.

For the vast majority of Californians trying to get a divorce finalized, the process can be as difficult as the marriage they're attempting to end. The long and detailed legal forms are daunting, and unrepresented petitioners frequently must give up work days for long waits in family courts with crammed and inefficient calendars; their documents may be serially rejected for errors; and they face deferral to an overcrowded public mediation calendar. The wealthy are increasingly opting out of the public system for private judging and mediation. But litigants without the funds to hire lawyers or mediators are stranded in this maze of deadlines and documentation, sometimes for years. And the volume is staggering: Of the nearly 161,000 couples statewide that file each year for dissolution, separation, or annulment, 72 percent don't have lawyers.

California family courts are squeezed by two competing demands: severe budget cuts throughout the court system, and a state Supreme Court decision that requires better access to courts and better administration of family court processes. (Elkins v. Superior Court of Contra Costa, 41 Cal. 4th 1337 (2007).) California also offers divorcing spouses and their families more protections than many states. A court may require child custody mediation, for instance, and couples must agree on how to divide their assets and debts and how to allocate child and spousal support.

In Los Angeles even simple cases that are handled by a lawyer can take 18 months to resolve, says family law sole practitioner Michelle S. Short-Nagel. Sacramento Presiding Family Court Judge James M. Mize says self-represented petitioners can get stuck if they don't know how to write a marital settlement agreement or draft a final judgment that's acceptable to the court - or how to get onto a calendar for a hearing. So courts in Sacramento, San Diego, Solano, and Santa Clara counties have launched experimental "One-Day Divorce" programs to resolve the least-complicated cases. Mize, who created his county's program, calls it "skimming the cream off the bottom." He estimates that half the dissolutions filed each year in his county without lawyers could be fast-tracked if public resources were available.

Gregory W. Herring, a partner with Ferguson Case Orr in Ventura and past president of the Southern California American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, warns that one-day programs have lots of potential pitfalls. If domestic violence is involved, for instance, one partner may try to coerce the other into inappropriate custody or financial agreements. And money complicates all divorces. "The more assets are involved, the riskier the process," Herring says.

But even participants in fast-tracking programs don't literally settle their divorces in one day. California law requires all couples to wait at least six months before concluding a divorce. The difference is that, in Sacramento County and three other counties, couples with uncomplicated, active cases can now get onto one of two monthly "speedy" divorce calendars staffed by volunteer lawyers and law students who help them finish their paperwork. They weed out potential custody disputes or unresolved financial issues - such as how to divide a pension, an especially complex challenge. And participants who arrive by 8:30 a.m. actually can get a signed judgment by noon in some cases, Mize says.

San Diego has started a similar program, with no income limits, serving 20 to 50 cases per month out of nearly 25,000 filed annually. Its operation is funded for three years with a one-time grant of $100,000 from the San Diego County Bar Foundation. Much smaller Solano County, where 1,900 dissolution petitions are filed each year, runs a program staffed by volunteers (with a $500 budget for supplies). In other areas, such as the San Fernando Valley, volunteers are informally stepping up to interpret proceedings or draft judgments for self-represented parties.

These programs offer incremental improvements in a system that remains excruciating for most litigants. Says Briana Wagner, executive director of the San Diego County Bar Foundation: "They aren't [cutting] into line. We're making the line shorter."

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Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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