Thursday, March 1, 2012

Should Lay People Forgo Legal Representation and Use Standardized Forms?

The issue is coming to a head in Texas. The Texas Supreme Court created the Uniform Forms Task Force in March 2011 and ordered it to work with the Texas Access to Justice Commission to create standardized forms to help low-income Texans represent themselves when they can't afford lawyers. In early January, the task force submitted forms for simple, uncontested divorces with no children and no real property. Many Texas family lawyers take issue with the project.

Here is the accompanying article from the Texas Lawyer. It includes a 5:38 minute video featuring advocates on both sides of the issue.

 Although I once  favored creating such standardized forms, my experience as a  Legal Services lawyer has left me with serious doubts about the ability of low income lay people (and lay people at a  higher economic level) to maneuver through the judicial system alone. Qualification: I opine having never seen the proposed Texas forms and instructions.


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If the choice is between having standardized forms that are easy to use, or making people use examples to create their own forms, I believe standardized forms are absolutely the way to go. As a law librarian who's worked with public patrons for the last 5 years, I've found standardized forms take a lot of the anxiety out of law for people. Yes, ideally everyone could afford a lawyer, but that's just not realistic. This is the best option currently available.

Posted by: Lorelle Anderson | Mar 5, 2012 8:57:46 AM

The problem isn't with providing standardized forms. Washington State, where I practiced law before becoming a law librarian, did so many years ago for family law matters, and both represented and unrepresented parties have been required to use them. The problem is that finding the right format to ask the court to do something and filling it out correctly only goes so far, and we do a disservice to unrepresented litigants if we don't communicate that to them. If the matter is contested, and sometimes even if it is not, the litigant is at a distinct disadvantage if she does not know anything about the substantive law that the court is supposed to base its decision on in ruling on whether to grant the relief she is looking for, and the procedural law (beyond the pleading forms) for how to go about asking the court to do so. That doesn't mean standardized forms are not part of the answer, just that they are only part of it and must be accompanied by more aggressive efforts to educate litigants about the applicable substantive and procedural law. Absent the funding to make thousands of additional legal service attorneys available to people without charge or on a sliding scale they can actually afford throughout the country, I don't see an alternative.

Posted by: Nolan Wright | Mar 2, 2012 7:50:57 AM

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