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With an eye on the growing number of pro se divorces, the Florida Supreme Court has adopted new family court rules that allow attorneys to offer piecework services to people handling their own cases. Under the new rules, unanimously approved by the high court last month, parties in a divorce can hire a lawyer for the limited purpose of helping draft a divorce settlement or representing them on the matter of child support — without the lawyer having to appear in court on any other issue. Under the old rules, lawyers hired in divorce cases were responsible for all court pleadings, depositions, notices and appearances. The purpose of the new rules, which take effect Jan. 1, is to provide the public with greater access to affordable legal representation. The new rules also are intended to ease court delays caused by pro se litigants who are unfamiliar with judicial rules and procedure. Experts say pro se litigants sometimes make serious and irreversible mistakes on issues of alimony, child custody and child support that could have been prevented with legal help. “It is our hope that such services will increase the public’s understanding of the legal process, thereby improving access to justice,” Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the court in its Nov. 13 opinion. Myra Lindsay, a lawyer who heads the Family Court Self-Help Program in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, said that allowing litigants the option of hiring a lawyer for limited assistance should help them be less intimidated by the court system. Many of the pro se litigants may now turn to a lawyer for help with the qualified domestic relations order, a complicated form that must be filed to divide a couple’s pensions, Lindsay said. They might also opt for help in drafting their settlement agreements or seek advice on tax implications of the divorce. But some divorce lawyers are expressing concern that offering partial services will make them more vulnerable to Florida Bar disciplinary complaints and malpractice suits. They warn that it’s often difficult to wall off issues in divorce proceedings. “Even though you have what appears to be a single-issue hearing, it often morphs into something else,” said Dale Sanders, a Fort Lauderdale divorce attorney. “Then the lines are blurred as to what the lawyer’s job is and what the client’s supposed to do.” “The state Supreme Court’s decision to unbundle legal services in divorce cases is consistent with a nationwide trend. At least six other states, including Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Maine, Washington and New Mexico, previously have adopted rules allowing unbundled divorce law services. The trend is in response to the fact that the number of pro se litigants in divorce cases has more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to a 1992 American Bar Association study. In Florida, 65 percent of divorce cases are filed pro se, according to the Office of the State Courts Administrator. In 85 percent of all divorce cases in Florida, at least one party lacks legal representation by final judgment, because the party ran out of money for legal fees or fired their lawyer. While a relatively simple divorce with full legal representation generally costs $5,000 to $15,000, a do-it-yourself divorce costs less than $350. “A large number of the pro se litigants we see just can’t afford attorneys,” said Lindsay, who manages a staff of 10 paralegals and administrative workers who provide court forms, explain the court process and review the litigants’ documents to make sure they’re complete. “Many of them have a general sense of what the law is, but just want to get an expert opinion.” LIABILITY CONCERNS But as state courts have moved to unbundle divorce services, state bars have struggled to create rules to make partial representation practical for both litigants and lawyers. “Lawyers have expressed concern about liability,” said Richard West, an Orlando divorce lawyer and chair of the Florida Bar’s family law section. “They worry that they’ll do just part of the litigation, then the client will hold them responsible for the entire result.” To ease this concern, the new Supreme Court rules clearly state that a lawyer can go to court for a limited appearance and not be held responsible for the rest of the suit, said Adele Stone, chair of the Florida Bar’s unbundled legal services special committee, which drafted the rules approved by the Supreme Court. “If litigants decide the issue of child custody is too complicated, they can hire a lawyer for just one hearing,” said Stone, a partner at Atkinson Diner Stone Mankuta & Ploucha in Hollywood. “That lawyer can file a limited notice of appearance for one hearing and won’t have to go to court again.” Under the new rules, an attorney who appears on a case is considered the attorney of record for the entire matter unless the attorney files a notice, signed by the client, which limits the attorney’s appearance to a particular issue. Under the new Family Law Rules of Procedure 12.040, after the limited service is performed, the lawyer files a “termination of limited appearance” and is automatically relieved from the case. The rule also requires attorneys who provide a limited service to include their contact information as well as their client’s in all filings they’ve prepared; the opposing party must serve both the lawyer and the client on any pleadings or documents related to the limited service. The Supreme Court’s order also amended Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.060 and Rules of Appellate Procedure 9.360 to reflect the fact that lawyers providing limited services may withdraw from divorce cases simply by filing a termination of limited appearance. In addition, Florida Bar Rules 4-1.2 through Rule 4-1.3 were modified to reflect the change in the family law procedure. Under those rules, the lawyer providing limited services must spell out his or her agreed-upon duties in a signed agreement with the client. The amended rules also clarify proper protocol for communication between the two sides in a case with limited representation. An opposing lawyer can speak directly with a pro se litigant unless he or she receives written notice that the litigant is being represented by counsel for a limited purpose. In that case, the opposing party must speak only with the lawyer providing the limited service regarding any related topic. UNCHARTED TERRITORY But some divorce lawyers are skeptical of how this will play out in court. A hearing often is set to discuss child support, but the conversation veers into a discussion of visitation rights, some divorce lawyers say. If the lawyer was only hired to handle child support, it seems impractical to sit silently while their client argues visitation. Under the new rules, the lawyer can advise clients that they can hire them for the additional visitation issue and draft a new retainer agreement for the new service. But that could be viewed as trolling for business, a Florida Bar rule violation, Sanders said. Stone conceded that the new rules venture into uncharted territory. “Once a lawyer is at a hearing, do they have a duty to tell the client who’s arguing another element that they’re doing it wrong?” Stone asked. “That’s a legitimate question. No one’s exactly sure how this is going to play out.” But she noted that the Supreme Court directed the unbundled legal services committee to monitor the effect of the new rules and report back to the court in two years with observations and recommendations. The new rules are still a “work in progress,” she said. Myra Lindsay said it’s too soon to tell how the availability of unbundled services will affect the litigants seeking assistance at the self-help centers. “Maybe they’ll come to us more prepared,” she said. “Or at least more confident about what they’re doing.”

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