Denver Domestic Relations “Firefighters”

When people going through a divorce have no resources, but do not qualify for means-tested free legal services, what happens?

Typically, moderate income parties will be left to stumble through their case with very little help and even argue their case to the court without the assistance of a lawyer.

Generally, these parties have little understanding of how to conduct a trial and insufficient understanding of the legal standards the court must apply to terminate the marriage, divide the marital estate (or debt) and establish a functional parenting plan. Often, the parties have limited coping and communication techniques. Sometimes they cannot complete the court forms because they just don’t understand the questions, much less know the answers. Perhaps they do not read or write well.

Sometimes, the weight of the legal process bears down and their anxiety over the unknown is paralyzing.

Ultimately, some parties are not capable of settling their case on their own. For two unrepresented parties, achieving full agreement in divorce is a daunting task. However, the professionals who created the system cannot blame many of these parties for being unable to personally complete the job to properly dissolve their marriage before their permanent orders hearing date. Divorce is hard work even if you’re not one of the parties to the divorce. Even for lawyers with the requisite knowledge, experience and a disinterested perspective, the process can be stressful and exhausting. It is understandable that parties under the emotional strain of a failing relationship can find it even more difficult to develop an agreement that settles financial issues in a manner that is “not unconscionable,” together with a parenting plan that reflects the children’s “best interests.” It is no wonder that the judge is often asked to sort through stream-of-consciousness revelations of the competing versions of the marital and personal histories of two strangers, to review wholly inadequate disclosures, and then to invent a successful, post-divorce family out of equally impractical competing arguments.

Our judges are up to this job, but a complete agreement established before trial is typically the better and more efficient way for many litigants. While our judicial officers are selected for their intelligence; their understanding of the law; and also for their ability to sort through the chaff and express their findings in an accurate, complete and compassionately judicial manner, we must use our limited judicial resources more effectively. We must share the workload by challenging attorneys whose skills are similar to judges, to apply those skills to help pro se litigants determine what is important, apply the law to those facts, and gracefully explain the options to the parties. Experienced family lawyers are absolutely capable of providing that help to the pro se parties, to the system and to the bench.

With some skilled assistance, two adverse parties at the very zenith of that adversity can come to an agreement, thus avoiding the need for a judicial determination of facts and a ruling from the bench. With the right lawyers, a final chance to mediate at the courthouse prior to trial can be a gift for everyone involved. Even represented divorce litigants often need a little more legal information and immediacy to reach an agreement. We can see this in every judicial district and courthouse in Colorado. Under the right circumstances even the most adverse parties can and do reach compromise agreements to suit their mutual interests.

The Denver District Court has made such a gift available to its domestic litigants. Called the Denver Domestic Court Firefighters, the brainchild of Colorado Supreme Court Justice William Hood when he was on the District Court bench, is now implemented each and every Wednesday at the courthouse. The Denver Family Court Facilitator, Melina Hernandez, administers the program on the scheduling side and the various clerks and judges of the domestic courtrooms manage the parties, facts, forms, and lawyers as they arrive in court each week. Approximately 20 lawyers and 10 law firms have participated as volunteers for the program thus far.

These “Firefighters” cannot be used in every single case, nor does every use of a Firefighter result in success. However, Hernandez reports that she inevitably receives positive feedback from the pro se parties, counsel and the court. Although no data is presently being kept in these early stages of the program, participants anecdotally report a high success rate (full settlement). “The lawyers are excited” and their excitement speaks to the utility of the program as well as the satisfaction that the good family law volunteers feel when they get signatures and smiles from the parties and a heartfelt “thank you” from their judicial officer.

If you have family law experience and are interested, volunteers may contact Melina Hernandez at melina.hernandez@judicial.state.co.us. Thank you to Hernandez for her energy and efficiency in the Denver Domestic Courts. The “Firefighters” program was new to Denver in April 2013, and its success is becoming recognized by the judicial officers of the various other districts who might have a similar need. This program is one of many through which family law attorneys currently volunteer their time and expertise to assist unrepresented and oftentimes underserved parties in reaching settlement in their tough parental responsibilities and divorce-related matters. The movement is growing.

By James Garts, an associate at Gutterman Griffiths, PC. The attorneys of Gutterman Griffiths continue to maintain their commitment to public service and to fostering successful resolutions for Colorado families as they volunteer monthly as Domestic Court “Firefighters” in Denver District Court.