Domestic relations cases represent almost nine percent of all cases filed each year in Oregon. But as busy as family law attorneys are, our cases are a minority of the domestic relations cases on court dockets. Statewide, it is estimated that two-thirds of all family law cases have at least one party that is unrepresented. In Multnomah County, the figure is estimated to be as high as seventy- five percent. Many do not have attorneys by choice, but because they feel they can’t afford representation. As a result, county bar associations rely heavily on Legal Aid Society and attorneys providing pro bono services. Unfortunately, budgets are tight and these groups cannot possibly fill the entire void.In an effort to make the courts more accessible to unrepresented parties in domestic relations cases, on May 29, 2013, the Deschutes County Circuit Court will launch a pilot program called the Informal Domestic Relations Trial. A noticeable difference between the new informal trial and the traditional trial is that attorneys are only allowed to play a limited role in the informal program. A party may have an attorney present, but the lawyer is limited to giving an opening statement, directing the court to question a party on issues, and giving a closing argument.
Within these parameters, the Informal Domestic Relations Trial provides a fantastic opportunity for family law attorneys to offer their expertise and legal services to more of the population. An attorney in a more limited capacity than full representation will be more affordable, allowing people with limited means to take advantage of the advice of an attorney. Services could include pre- trial consultations, assistance with trial preparation such as organizing exhibits, and participating in the informal trial.
Another key difference between the two trial systems is that the Rules of Evidence do not apply to the informal program. The parties speak directly to the judge and the judge questions the parties. Hearsay and character evidence that would traditionally be excluded all come in as evidence with the judge having discretion to give such evidence appropriate weight. Also, the parties may give to the judge for consideration any document that they feel is important. The goal of the program is to allow unrepresented parties to present as much evidence as possible so judges can make an informed decision about what is in the best interests of the parties and, more importantly, the best interest of their children.
Currently, court administrators anticipate that all domestic relations litigants, represented or not, will be informed of the Informal Domestic Relations Trial option
at their pre-trial conference. To participate in the program, both the petitioner and
the respondent must agree to use it and they both must sign a waiver and consent form. While this program is clearly not for everyone, it is ideal for parties with limited budgets and relatively simple cases. If the program is a success, it is anticipated that
it will be rolled out to counties statewide. The attorneys at Stahancyk, Kent & Hook have participated in discussions with the judges and court administrators regarding implementation of the new rules and they stand ready to help new clients navigate and maximize the Informal Domestic Relations Trial.