On Facebook’s Throwback Thursday, I posted my photo working in the late 1980’s at the Legal Aid Society of Charleston. The notebook sitting on the table was part of a project I undertook while working there. When many of my clients could not afford a lawyer and our staff was too small to provide direct representation for them, we developed “clinics” whereby we guided clients obtaining divorces pro se, or without a lawyer. Our first efforts required a trip to the West Virginia Supreme Court after one clerk refused to file handwritten pleadings. The Supreme Court ruled in our favor…continuing a tradition in West Virginia of opening the courts to citizens, even without attorneys.
A few years later, I worked with West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in several projects related to family law. As the clerk to the committee chaired by Judge Craig Broadwater, we developed the first rules of procedure for Family Law in West Virginia. At the same time, the court developed and approved the first forms for parties to file their own divorces.
Since the 1990's, however, things have changed, giving parties in family law proceedings options, both on filing cases pro se and in pursuing processes that avoid litigation.
- In 1990 the form pleadings were only available from the Circuit Clerk’s office. Today, while they are still available for the cost of copying the form, they are now available at no cost in PDF form from the Supreme Court’s website.
- In 1990, mediation was not available to most people pursuing divorce in West Virginia. Some counties, such as those in the Eastern Panhandle, began a pilot project in the mid 1990s for referral of cases to mediation by the court. Today, many mediators in West Virginia offer mediation services to parties to work out their property settlement agreement and parenting plan before and after they file their divorce case in addition to the court referrals.
- In 1990, we did not have a Family Court. Family Law Masters decided cases and their decisions had to be approved by the Circuit Court. Today, the process is streamlined. Case coordinators assist the judges in scheduling and writing orders, making it easier for parties to proceed without attorneys. The court personnel cannot write any paperwork besides orders, and it often benefits the parties to work with attorneys and mediators to assist them in reaching agreements and presenting them to the court.
- In 1990, we did not have procedural rules in family law cases. We primarily relied upon the Rules of Civil Procedure to address questions. Today, we have those procedural rules which are readily available to the public via the West Virginia Supreme Courts website.
- In 1990, collaborative law did not exist. Today, collaborative law offers parties another option when they do not want to engage in lengthy litigation, but do want to have the assistance of an experienced attorney who will work hard for them to obtain a good result for their family, without creating an adverse climate for the family.
It is usually best to consult with an attorney before you give up important legal rights in any situation. However, the options available today allow flexibility in deciding when to contact an attorney and the type of services you require. Our office accepts family law cases in Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia when the parties are interested in collaborative law. We also offer mediation services to parties who are interested in that option, with or without retaining independent counsel. Materials about both collaborative law and mediation are available on our website. You may also contact us if you have additional questions.