“Obligors” and “obligees” have been banished, and “petitioners” and “debtors” have been vanquished.
These are examples of how a state initiative is ridding legalese from court forms and documents relating to child support, custody and divorce cases.
The “plain language” initiative could have a big impact in Cowlitz County, where nearly 60 percent of family law cases in the last seven months were handled “pro se,” meaning at least one party represented themselves without a lawyer.
Some say the changes will reduce stress on families and couples, and reduce the time lawyers spend explaining specialized language to clients.
Laurie Garber, family lawyer with the Northwest Justice Project, said low- to middle-income families who can’t afford lawyers often get caught in a tangle of legalese and paperwork.
“Family law is where the courts see a lot of people without lawyers, and (there are) not enough lawyers who can help people without prohibitive costs,” Garber said. “I think that we’ll be able to (help) more clients more efficiently. … Rather than explaining all those crazy terms, which aren’t necessary, we can say, ‘What’s your emergency and what can we help you with?’ “
Garber said the project, launched in 2009, reduced the number of domestic case forms from 212 to 182. The Northwest Justice Project, which provides free legal help to low-income clients, was one of many groups that worked with the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts, private attorneys, prosecutors and clerks to simplify the forms.
Garber said the new forms also complement the recent authorization of limited legal license technicians, non-lawyers certified by the Washington Bar Association to provide lower cost legal assistance to pro se clients.. Washington became the first state to certify LLLTs last year.
Though Garber is excited about the change, others in family law aren’t as enthusiastic.
Erin Eastwood said the new forms won’t do much to change how her Longview legal office assists clients. Eastwood has been a legal assistant for veteran Longview family lawyer G. Alex Styve for the past 22 years.
“It’s good for the pro se people,” Eastwood said. “From a legal standpoint, (the change) wasn’t necessary. ... I think the forms were fine.”
Most of the office’s family law work comes from people with more complex cases, so making forms simpler shouldn’t hurt business, she said. Eastwood added, however, that it’s possible that the office may see fewer pro se clients asking for consultations. Still, “the need for lawyers will always be there,” she said.
Cowlitz County Superior Court Clerk Staci Myklebust anticipates the new forms will help ease the frustration she and her staff members often face from people struggling to understand the court system. She can’t say how big of an impact the new forms will have until they’re in place. People can file the new forms beginning May 1 and will be required to file them beginning July 1.
Myklebust said people commonly ask what certain terms mean in the forms and how they’re supposed to fill them out.
“We have guidelines we put out on what forms they need, but we still get a lot of questions,” Myklebust said.
But because her clerks aren’t allowed to give legal advice, Myklebust said her office can only provide guidelines about which forms need to be filled out.
“We provide guideline sheets and as much direction as we can to them, but there’s not a lot we can do,” she said.
Garber said the new forms also could reduce the number of errors in court files, so they may reduce the number of hearings a case needs and bring clients faster resolutions. Judges and clerks should rejoice, she said.
“Even the people who don’t speak with a lawyer, it will help them get through their cases with fewer errors,” she said.