Justice Lehrmann drove up from Austin last Thursday to discuss the uniform forms initiative with your TCFLBA board. Your board members had an extensive discussion with Justice Lehrmann about the issues of concern. The board wanted to be sure that those of you speaking or appearing at the State Bar meeting this Friday had this summary of what we heard and discussed:
Justice Lehrmann stated to us that she sincerely shares our concerns about the shortcomings of the pro se forms and will be advocating our position to slow the process down. She said she was gratified that we offered insight and alternatives to resolve the larger issue at hand regarding access to the legal system by those who are truly indigent. She feels that the Supreme Court will be more receptive if they hear that we are not opposing the entire plan out of hand, and are open to incorporating and considering the work already started by the Task Force. She suggested that we ask the Supreme Court to suspend endorsement of the pro se forms for now, so that all of the stakeholders have the opportunity to further build on the common goal of assisting the indigent families.
Although the other eight justices are interested in Justice Lehrmann’s opinion as the duly appointed liaison to the Bar, this is certainly not a fait accompli. Justice Lehrmann suggested that when we address the State Bar on January 20th, the other Justices who are in attendance will need to be impressed by our willingness to work with the Forms Task Force Committee to come up with ideas regarding how to address the vast number of truly indigent citizens who cannot afford attorneys. She believes that if we adopt an accusatory tone and threaten to withdraw our financial donations to the Access to Justice Fund, we may well shoot ourselves in our collective foot.
Judge Lehrmann verified that The Task Force Committee’s work is paramount to Chief Justice Hecht and if he does not sincerely believe that we are interested in considering the work already put into the forms and building on those with all of the stakeholders at the table, he and the other seven non-family law Justices may well tune out the other serious concerns that we express regarding the endorsement of Pro Se Forms by the Supreme Court.
We have all acknowledged that there is undoubtedly a need to address the rising tide of self representation in the courts and the noble cause of providing legal assistance to the indigent. But without thoughtful oversight of the use of these forms, we are likely to see more irreparable harm done to the very people the Task Force set out to help. Many pro se litigants are illiterate or speak a different language. Others are abuse victims cowed into signing. Pro se litigants who have made use of forms have been dispossessed of their homes, retirement benefits, child support, and/or access to their children. This may be due to intimidation by the dominant spouse, or, simply not understanding they had other choices.
There are a plethora of other resources available for the indigent and the poor that help protect their fundamental property rights and right to receive appropriate child support, health care, and access to their children. We believe a better process is to bring these resources into the planning process to develop an integrated plan which will further guarantee that indigent families are assisted and protected.
Justice Lehrmann believes the best chance we have at halting this runaway train and getting a seat at the table is to take a cooperative approach in which the interests of all stakeholders are acknowledged and left open for full consideration.