Navigating the family law system can be an overwhelming and emotional process, especially for people who have no choice but to represent themselves in court.
The number of pro se litigants has steadily increased across the country, with between 60 to 90 percent of family law cases involving at least one party with no legal representation, according to information released by the American Bar Association in 2013.
“People are kind of in a society of do-it-yourself. Some people may be able to afford an attorney, but others can’t. We are seeing more and more people representing themselves,” Clark County Chief Deputy Clerk Baine Wilson said.
Local and state agencies recognize a strong need for assistance and have begun offering alternatives to help guide the public through the process.
The Washington State Bar Association last June held its first round of exams in the newly created Limited License Legal Technician program. The program was established after the state Supreme Court adopted a rule allowing licensing of non-lawyers to give legal advice, for now, just in family law — at a fraction of the cost of what attorneys charge.
The problem for Clark County residents, however, is that there are currently no legal technicians in the immediate area.
Even if a situation is amicable, many pro se litigants struggle with getting the correct forms and often seek legal advice, which the court is unable to give, Wilson said. “It has been a huge burden on the court system,” she said.
Two Clark County court facilitators help people obtain the right forms and make sure paperwork is filled out correctly. But the assistance comes at a price — $20 for a 30-minute session — and there are too many people signing up and too few appointments available to see a facilitator.
“We were getting to a point that we were having to turn individuals away,” Wilson said. “We know that in order to get them through the system, they need help.”
As another alternative, the county in April started offering a monthly evening and weekly noon-hour class on the basics of divorce and other topics in family law, such as temporary orders, modifications, restraining orders, defaults and non-parental custody. Local attorneys have volunteered to teach the classes, which are offered from 5 to 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month, and they hold a brown-bag class Wednesdays where people can come with general questions.
There are about eight classes — held at the Clark County Courthouse — that rotate through the same series every two months. The class location changes between courtrooms, but the schedule is posted in the elevator.
Wilson said the county is considering recording the classes and putting them on its website so people can access them outside of class. She is also talking with a few attorneys about having them review people’s paperwork during pro se dockets.
“It’s such a confusing process. Family law, divorce, is just so confusing,” Wilson said. “We are trying to find resources for people so they don’t have to keep coming back to court.” In turn, the courts will run more efficiently, she added.
Wilson said she thinks having a legal technician in the area would be a good resource for pro se litigants and isn’t sure why no one local has pursued the program.
There are two legal technicians in Southwest Washington — one practices in Longview and the other in White Salmon. There also are legal technicians in Auburn, Belfair, Bellingham, Entiat, Everett, Granite Falls, Olympia, Renton, Shoreline, Tacoma and Yakima.
Paula Littlewood, WSBA’s Executive Director, said there was some resistance when the program first took shape.
“Change is hard. It’s a big change for the legal profession,” she said.
Some lawyers don’t like the program because they feel it takes work away from their business, she said. Others have expressed concerns over the quality of assistance offered by legal technicians. “It’s not a license off the back of a cereal box; this is pretty rigorous,” Littlewood said.
“I think the more people (who) become aware of it, and what it is and what it isn’t, there will be a growing acceptance,” added Steve Crossland, chair of the Limited License Legal Technician board.
The program benefits the public by providing quality and regulated legal services, and helps those who otherwise can’t afford an attorney, Crossland said.
Since the first exam was administered in June 2015, 14 people have successfully completed the program and are licensed. There are a couple hundred more who are enrolled in participating community colleges or who are completing the core paralegal and study in family law through the University of Washington School of Law in collaboration with Gonzaga University School of Law. Several other participants are preparing to take their exams.