I love Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog, especially when he covers programs like the one offered by San Diego, California courts to accomplish divorce in a single day. Zorza cites a New York Times piece to explain how the process works. The divorcing couple files for divorce and reaches agreement on everything: property, debts, child-related issues, etc. Then the couple goes to court and a court coordinator helps ensure they have all the necessary documents and they are completed correctly. With the paperwork in order, the couple can get their divorce the same day.
One of the things that makes this program unusual is that the court provides a coordinator who does not give legal advice, but who does help the divorcing couple ensure their documents are in order and help fill in any missing pieces if needed.Courts across the country struggle with how to help litigants without crossing the line to practicing law. This is especially true for clerks who receive court filings and for judges who hear cases involving self-represented litigants. This San Diego court has opted to define what the coordinator can do in this role rather expansively while remaining clear that court staff may not provide legal advice.
This approach has limitations. First, it only serves couples who can work out everything, and that is probably a pretty small percentage of divorcing couples. Second, it is not appropriate for couples whose situation is complicated – legally, financially or emotionally. That rules out a large percentage of divorces, too. Third, there is no lawyer looking out for what each side might be entitled to under the law, so some people may get less than they would be entitled to receive and others may get more.
Nonetheless, there are aspects that I love about this idea. First, couples who can work everything out should not be stuck in a one-size-fits-all divorce process. This one-day process can be a real boon to them. Second, this process can cut down on multiple trips to court caused by simple mistakes in the documents. That means less cost for parties and more time for judges to spend on other cases. Third, the court really digs in and helps the parties fill out everything correctly. I think this is an appropriate use of public resources by the justice system.
The Sacramento court implemented a similar program prior to the San Diego program. Unlike the San Diego program, access to the Sacramento program depends on the income of the divorcing couple. Both the Sacramento and San Diego programs are free to participants.
We could debate whether this one-day divorce process is alternative dispute resolution. There is no neutral practitioner in the way the ADR field thinks about it, but there is a court coordinator who acts in a neutral manner and helps the parties move through the legal process. If this is ADR, then it certainly qualifies as court ADR. I will be interested to hear how it works out.