Authored By: Christopher Pearsall, RI Divorce Attorney
a.k.a. " The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠ "
There is a huge PRO SE movement going forward in the Rhode island Family Courts. The court schedules have people representing themselves in their own cases every day. Beside each listing for those people it says "PRO SE." The listings used to be few and far between on the Rhode Island divorce and family court calendars but today they are everywhere.
I started wondering why this newer "PRO SE" movement had grown so large when your legal rights relating to your family law matters are so very important such that even one mistake can cause irreparable harm.
So months ago I began listening to people more intently at court, in my office, and in public commentaries in print and online. For my result I focused on three (3) questions that might help understand this PRO SE trend on the family court calendars.
1) Is it that all divorce lawyers are viewed as being too expensive?
2) Is it that people simply don't have the money to hire a divorce lawyer in any capacity?
3) Or could it be that the Rhode Island family court is making divorces easier and people don't see the perils of representing themselves?
The answer related not to one or two of the questions but to all three (3).
The vast majority of people I listened to and considered related mostly to Rhode Island divorces but still I kept my ears open about comments by people talking about lawyers, their consultations with other lawyers, editorials and other materials. I found that the vast majority of people in the middle class viewed lawyers as being drastically overpaid, expensive and not worth the monies they would be paid and so they would rather go PRO SE and save themselves expensive attorney's fees.
A good many people also believed that representation in a divorce or family law matter was the only option available to them and therefore concluded that since they simply didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to represent them to protect their rights that they were forced to go forward PRO SE and represent themselves.
Lastly, there were quite a few people who didn't want to spend any money on getting divorced and heard through a friend or relative that not only was the court giving out the questions that they should be prepared to answer at the hearing but that the judge's were, in fact, leading them through the divorce and therefore a lawyer was unnecessary.
The reasoning used by most of the people who were part of my private study was interesting but flawed for two reasons.
First, people need to understand that representation is not the only form of legal assistance available in the Rhode Island legal community. Coaching in divorce and other areas of law has been around for years. This is legal assistance that lawyers provide to clients on an "as desired basis" or "as affordable basis" to clients who cannot afford full-service "in court" representation but who must represent themselves due to the cost but still need to know their rights and the proper procedure for asserting those rights.
The challenge of finding one of these "Coaching" attorneys is that many of them still focus on full-service in-court representations and they do not openly promote their "coaching services" which brings in a small amount of income and a greater level of liability exposure for what they are paid. As you can imagine then, this is not the focus of many practitioners and this option is often only revealed when a prospective client discloses that he or she cannot afford the full-service representation. Yet coaching has become a substantial way to exercise your constitutional right to represent yourself, save a considerable amount of money compared to full representation and yet still have access to an experienced lawyer to learn about your legal rights as well as the procedure you can use to press those rights before the court.
Yet coaching and it's affordability doesn't come cheap. It's price? It can take substantial time and effort to find an attorney who offers coaching in the area of law that you need assistance with (family law or otherwise) and therefore if you want the affordability it comes at a sacrifice of your time and effort to find such an attorney.
Second, people need to understand that the questions provided by the court in the divorce papers are merely general questions that can relate to many divorces. They were not created necessarily to help the public but to help the judges by providing a guide that PRO SE people could follow, regardless of whether it was right or not for your divorce. However, that particular determination is yours to make because you are acting as your own lawyer and the protector of your own rights when you are PRO SE. The judges may even ask you the questions on that sample sheet. Litigants look at this as kindly helping them through the process just as they should be going through it. This presumption is dead wrong. The judge asks you questions that the judge knows apply to most divorces because the judge needs to make findings of fact and a decision affecting the parties' rights at the end of the hearing. Without specific content the judge can't make the required findings of fact and the decisions in the case. The judge's job is to give you your day in court and to clear his or her docket properly and legally of the cases on it. It is your job to protect your own rights. The sample questions you are given DO NOT protect your legal rights. If the judge asks you the sample questions or other questions during the divorce proceeding, this is not designed to protect your legal rights.
It is YOUR JOB and ONLY YOUR JOB to know your rights and to protect them during any divorce or family law proceeding in the Rhode Island Courts. So, if you represent yourself, PRO SE, and you miss something, forget something, mis-state something, or misunderstand something then you should understand that you should not expect that you should or even can sue the State of Rhode Island or the Judge who presided over your proceeding.
If you want a cheaper or more affordable divorce and you feel up to representing yourself, then by all means you have the constitutional right to do so but you should most assuredly get some coaching from an experienced family law practitioner who offers coaching and can inform you about your rights, the procedures, etc... Naturally your level of protection and safety in the proceeding relates to the amount of coaching and advice you are willing to engage the attorney for, but it is better than thinking that you know as much as a lawyer who has been doing this for many years and has read the law, or than thinking that the court is already protecting you so you don't need a lawyer at all.
If you don't know your legal rights in a divorce and how to protect them, you might as well not have them.