Filing For Divorce Without a Lawyer

Many people go to family court without a lawyer.

A person who moves through his or her court case without an attorney is called a pro se filer. He or she is a self-represented litigant (SRL)

The number of self-represented litigants (“SRLs”) is often the highest in family cases—divorce or separation and custody issues – where the parties can negotiate the terms and conditions of the breakup without acrimony.

Pro se divorce filing works best ending marriages on an uncontested or amicable basis. If one spouse decides to hire a lawyer, the other spouse should also hire a lawyer.

In some jurisdictions, such as California, a couple can end a marriage in a summary divorce. One spouse does the filing and the other simply goes along. Other jurisdictions make it is easy to get a simplified divorce, where one party simply fails to appear and the action defaults in favor of the petitioner. Many couples use online filing, which vastly simplifies the process with step-by-step instructions.

According to a 2006 report, in the United States, many state court systems and the federal courts have experienced an increasing proportion of pro se litigants. Estimates of the pro se rate of family law overall averaged 67 percent in California, 73 percent in Florida’s large counties, and 70 percent in some Wisconsin counties. In San Diego, for example, the number of divorce filings involving at least one pro se litigant increased from 46 percent in 1992 to 77 percent in 2000, in Florida from 66 percent in 1999 to 73 percent in 2001. California reports in 2001 that over 50 percent of family matters filings in custody and visitation are by pro se litigants. In the U.S. Federal Court system for the year 2013 pro se litigants filed approximately 27 percent of civil actions filed, 92 percent of prisoner petitions and 11 percent of non-prisoner petitions. Defendants in political trials tend to participate in the proceedings more than defendants in non-political cases, as they may have greater ability to depart from courtroom norms to speak to political and moral issues.

Two out of three family court filings in California are submitted by SRLs according to the Council of California. Seventy percent of family cases in Maryland involve at least one SRL at some point in the case, according to the   Maryland Access to Justice Commission. The percentage of SRL divorce filings is believed to be near 40 percent in Texas, according to the Texas Access to Justice Commission.

All too often, SRLs have been left out of conversation on improving the legal process, where judges, attorneys, and court staff have informed these efforts. Where to begin, how to proceed, and making sense of the outcome – all can be puzzling for the pro se filer.

IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, has announced a first-of-its-kind national project to examine the growing trend of American families who represent themselves in family court.

The IAALS study, Cases Without Counsel: Experiences of Self-Representation in U.S. Family Court, is asking self-represented litigants in family court about their experience with the legal process. The goal is to contribute to the conversation on how family court processes can adequately and appropriately meet the needs of all litigants. This study builds on qualitative empirical research undertaken in Canada.

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