Overstepping Ethical Boundaries? Limitations on State Efforts To Provide Access to Justice in Family Courts

By Jessica Dixon Weaver
May 1, 2014

Family law courts in America are overwhelmed with self-represented parties who try their best to navigate an unfamiliar territory laden with procedural and evidentiary rules. Efforts to level the playing field in these courts have resulted in state entities and judges taking on roles that previously belonged to attorneys. State supreme court judges and state agencies draft and promulgate family law forms, such as divorce pleadings and paternity acknowledgments, to provide poor citizens access to justice. While these efforts have resulted in positive outcomes for some families, reliance on the state’s imprimatur has caused significant harm to others. Upon closer examination, the state has not adhered to the same ethical standards that ordinarily apply to judges and attorneys with regard to the development and dissemination of these forms. This Article is the first to explore whether state courts and agencies have overstepped ethical boundaries and subverted public interest to satisfy private interests of the state as regulator. It argues that these state forms are poor substitutes for attorneys and that the complexities of family law continue to warrant legal counsel in our current adversarial court practice.