Boiler-plate language snares low-income divorce litigants

Posted Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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It's hard not to see this as the result of a divorce process that churns without giving enough attention to details.

Lawsuits filed against Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder say he's trying to intimidate low-income litigants into paying fees they believed had been waived. Wilder says he's just following court orders.

More-carefully drawn divorce decrees are what's needed.

Two groups of individuals sued Wilder last week, claiming that his office has wrongly demanded payment of hundreds of dollars per case even though Texas law exempts the litigants because they included documents swearing to their indigence when they filed for divorce.

In December, a lawyer from the Austin-based Texas Advocacy Project sent a letter asking the district clerk's office to stop trying to collect $271 and $308 from individuals who were divorced in 2011 but were told last year that they owed the county for court costs.

A letter from the Tarrant County district attorney's office responded that the divorce decrees directed the parties to pay their own costs. "The district clerk is merely acting consistent with the orders of a district judge" and can't overrule that, Assistant DA Christopher Ponder wrote.

Ponder's letter said the language in a divorce judgment could be appealed to the courts. But the time limit for appealing has long passed for the plaintiffs who sued Wilder, according to the lawsuits.

The Texas Advocacy Project filed suit on behalf of three clients. Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas filed a separate suit for four people billed more than $300 each for divorces finalized between 2008 and 2012.

Many low-income litigants file for divorce themselves using standardized forms; some receive help from Legal Aid or pro bono attorneys.

Judges typically sign off on divorce decrees brought to them by the parties or lawyers in the cases. But judges have a responsibility to read the paperwork first and make changes as needed. State District Court Judge Randy Catterton said some judges have been paying more attention to whether proposed decrees are consistent with indigence forms.

They certainly should be doing that. If lawyers are involved, they should make sure their clients aren't blindsided by future bills.

And if standardized forms are a problem, the courts and the legal profession should help improve them. Litigation seems the worst -- and most expensive -- way to resolve this conflict.

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