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Much of the domestic client’s legal fees are spent bickering over emotional issues that have little to do with the actual division of assets, the amount of support owed or the custody of the children. Given this reality, the court system needs to make clients accountable for their vexatious conduct. One effective way of doing this is to assess the overly aggressive client with attorney fees. While there is ample authority in the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure and the case law for awards of attorney fees in a family law case, as a practical matter, most courts are reluctant to award substantial attorney fees. True, a party’s payment of his own attorney fees does often provide a level of restraint with respect to how aggressive that party pursues the domestic matter. However, this financial burden alone is often insufficient to stem unnecessary litigation. As our legal system provides open access to the courts with a few exceptions, courts cannot limit the number of petitions a family law litigant files. By assessing attorney fees against an obstreperous party, the courts will deter many from filing frivolous actions. As family law practitioners are well aware, once the initial bill is sent out to the client, the frequency of the telephone calls to the lawyer quickly diminishes. Similarly, if a client knows that he will be hit with a substantial attorney fee award, he will most likely be more cautious about filing unnecessary petitions or obstructing the process in general. Fault is largely irrelevant in a domestic action. Because of this, the courts do not wish to involve themselves in the petty antics of litigious spouses. Rather than delve into the source of the conflict, fact finders and judges alike try to cut through to the issues and avoid assigning blame for the problem in the first place. However, as a consequence of this reluctance, a vast majority of clients suffer. Because the courts do not want to hear the plea of the party faced with an overly litigious spouse, the party is then left to fend for herself, having to suffer through multiple court hearings and to pay exorbitant attorney fees. The courts have an obligation to rein in these loose cannons to protect the innocent opposing party. The most effective way to do this is to assess them with attorney fees. Unfortunately, entering attorney fee awards will require the courts to make inquiry into fault in the litigation. While this inquiry will initially take more court time, in the end it will save time by deterring future litigation. The extra effort needed to determine which party should be assessed with attorney fees will pay off in the long run. It most likely will limit the number of times any given case appears before the courts, and it will compel parties to behave more civilly to each other. The best byproduct is that with parties behaving better, there will be less turmoil within the family and the whole process will be easier for all involved, especially the children.

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