Though he faced personal criticism, managed a sometimes “exhausting” debate, and volunteered his time for nearly two years, Stewart Gagnon never wavered in his devotion to creating pro se divorce forms for indigent Texans.
“It’s never hard to stand up for a principle you believe in,” says Gagnon, a partner in Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston. “I won’t tell you it was always fun, but it was a good year.”
Gagnon says he’s proud of the results he obtained as chairman of the Texas Supreme Court’s Uniform Forms Task Force, which drafted a set of pro se divorce forms for couples with no children or real property. The Supreme Court approved them on Nov. 13, noting, “These forms will be a useful tool in addressing the burgeoning population of litigants who cannot afford representation.”
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht says, “[W]ith respect to the concern for access to justice, I don’t know any lawyer in Texas that walks the walk more than Stewart.”
The State Bar of Texas and the Bar’s Family Law Section opposed the forms, saying pro se litigants would harm their own interests. But Gagnon says he thinks the forms will give people access to the courts and make the court system more efficient at dealing with pro se litigants. Pro bono lawyers can use the forms to help indigent clients, and Gagnon thinks the forms will impact other lawyers positively.
“It will get lawyers more engaged in assisting these people who choose to not hire a lawyer to totally handle their case,” he says, noting pro se litigants could hire lawyers for basic advice or help completing forms.
Trish McAllister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, which supported the forms and helped draft them, says chairing the forms task force took a lot of Gagnon’s time because the group met each month for more than a year.
“There are very few people who take the number of pro bono cases he takes and also [are] willing to spend the incredible amount of time he spends on this project to ensure people who are poor are getting access to the court system. He just believes deep in his soul it’s the right thing to do and it’s what being a lawyer is about,” she says.
Gagnon also volunteers with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program, a legal-help telephone line, a veteran’s legal clinic and more. In 2011, he took 50 cases pro bono, and he did a similar number this year.
“Every day, I’m doing something on a pro bono case. Most of them are assisting people in getting divorced,” he says.
The Bar’s Family Law Section first voiced public opposition to the project in the summer of 2011. [See "Draft Forms for Pro Se Divorce Litigants Create Controversy," Texas Lawyer, Jan. 16, 2012, page 1.]
As the debate continued through 2012, some people launched personal attacks against Gagnon on blogs and Facebook, McAllister says. The attacks suggested Gagnon is a big-firm lawyer who doesn’t understand the realities of most family law attorneys.
“I worried about him and the effect it would have on his practice, simply because you don’t know if people who are not happy with things you are working on, if they would stop referring you clients,” McAllister says.
Gagnon says the attacks didn’t impact his practice, and he says the criticism is not true. He says he mentors other lawyers and understands their struggles. He hopes the forms will help bring more work to lawyers by encouraging pro se litigants to hire lawyers for limited tasks.
Hecht says Gagnon met with people who were concerned about the forms and answered their questions.
“Another leader might not have been as patient. No one likes to be criticized, but he didn’t just brush it off. He tried to answer it. . . . Someone else might have been less firm in his conviction about what to do, but Stewart had studied all this very carefully, and while he was willing to listen to everyone . . . he was also very firm about what he thought should happen,” says Hecht, the high court’s liaison to the TAJC and the forms task force.
But Steve Bresnen, a lobbyist for the Texas Family Law Foundation, which opposes the divorce forms, says he feels that family lawyers raised issues with the forms that “were often brushed off.” No one formally engaged the “organized bar” to lead the forms project, Bresnen says, which was a “central failing of this whole project.”
“I don’t think Stewart can bear the whole responsibility for that. I personally lay that at the feet of the Access to Justice Commission and the [Supreme] Court,” he says.
Hecht declines comment regarding Bresnen’s claim, but McAllister and Gagnon both say the forms task force tried to involve the Family Law Section from the beginning.
“They declined to do that,” he says.
McAllister adds, “Their position was: They were opposed to forms; they would not be involved in any way, shape or form.”
Gagnon says criticism and comments about the forms weren’t “brushed off,” they were “seriously considered,” and the final forms incorporated changes based on feedback.
Gagnon says he was disappointed that people attacked him personally and criticized the Supreme Court.
“I think it’s helpful to have good, vigorous debate about policy without personalizing that debate,” he says.
Why has Gagnon spent so much time working on pro bono cases and volunteering on the forms task force?
Gagnon replies, “I have sitting on my desk right now a bust of Robert Kennedy, and I think Robert Kennedy has always been my role model. We, as citizens of this nation, this world, have the obligation to pay rent for our time on this planet. That rent may be helping people who need help. . . . I have some good, specialized training in an area of law, and that’s an area where I can assist people.”