In 2011, 7,965 domestic relations cases were filed in district courts in North Dakota, including support proceedings, divorce, protection and restraining orders, paternity, adoption, parenting responsibility and termination of parental rights. The cases represent 4.8 percent of all cases filed that year.
Though many people who find themselves embroiled in such situations can and do hire attorneys to represent them in court, people without the money to pay retainers and hourly fees also end up in court dealing with their family issues.
Legal Services of North Dakota serves as an intake service for low-income people who need legal assistance. LSND passes cases it can’t take on to the North Dakota State Bar Association’s volunteer lawyer program. Bill Neumann, executive director of the state bar association, said LSND referred 622 cases to the volunteer lawyer program in 2012, and the bar found lawyers for 239 of them.
“The great majority of all of the ones that come through to us are family law cases,” he said. “That’s where the lion’s share of the need is.”
Neumann said family law has gotten more complicated over the years.
“When I was a young lawyer, any young fool of a lawyer could handle a family law case. And I did,” he said. “When I did it, you mostly just came up with a number for child support, and if there were any assets, you divided them up.”
Now, there are tax consequences, bankruptcy possibilities, retirement benefits and scads of other considerations attorneys have to consider.
“There are just a lot more ways that you could commit malpractice now,” Neumann said.
He said fewer attorneys are interested in taking on family law cases now, which means fewer are available to take pro bono family law cases in the volunteer lawyer program.
“It’s such an emotionally draining kind of work. It’s terrible for the clients who are going through it, but it’s hard on the lawyers who work for those clients, too,” he said.
To try to combat the problem, the South Central Judicial District, State Bar Association of North Dakota and the Big Muddy Bar Association are sponsoring an eight-hour Continuing Legal Education course on family law for attorneys and legal assistants. The course will be free, with a catch — lawyers who attend will be asked to accept a pro bono family law case in the year following the program, and legal assistants will be asked to assist with a pro bono case.
The Family Law Basics course is scheduled for four two-hour sessions, on April 30, May 7, May 14 and May 21 at the Burleigh County Courthouse. The sessions will run from 4 to 5 p.m. and 5:10 to 6:10 p.m.
Attorneys, judges and Supreme Court justices will explain the ins and outs of the family court system. Topics on the agenda include child support, ethics, property and debt, mediation, protection orders, parenting plans, summary divorce proceedings and more.
“You need something like this basics class to help get you going,” Neumann said. “And you also need to know the names of some experienced family law practitioners who you can call when you have a question.”
The course also was offered in 2011. Neumann said it is hard to measure the program’s success, though he believes the volunteer lawyer program has been able to cover more of the family law cases since then.
Neumann said the Legislature has helped make family law work more palatable for attorneys in recent sessions. Lawmakers funded a family law mediation program that has been successful in getting parents talking to each other about what is best for their children. Also, Neumann said some language changes — from custody and visitation to primary residential responsibility and parenting time — seem to have toned down the adversarial nature of the proceedings.
Neumann said lawyers have a professional obligation to help people who can’t afford their services attain justice.
“We aren’t meeting all the needs yet, but we’ve got a committee working right now on how we can do it better. We’re always trying to figure out how to do it better.”
Space for Family Law Basics course is limited, and registration is required. Contact Ronda Colby at email@example.com or (701) 222-6682, ext. 116 to register. Participants must provide their names, email addresses and phone numbers.