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Do It Yourself Divorce: A National Trend

DivorceToday.com was established in 1999 by divorce attorney Marc A. Rapaport. At that time, DivorceToday.com was a pioneer in the field of self-help legal services. In the late 1990’s, the Internet was far less user-friendly than it is today. High speed internet connections were still years away, and search engines provided a jumbled mix of largely useless results. E-Commerce was still in its infancy, and the very notion of making an online purchase would have been unfathomable to most people.

During the past decade, the Internet has undergone repeated transformations, fast becoming an integral part of most Americans’ personal and professional lives. It has rendered countless other media obsolete, and it has changed the very fabric our society. The availability of information (and, at times, misinformation) has increased on a scale that is nothing less than revolutionary.

The rise of the Internet has been accompanied by a rise in the extent to which individuals have appeared in court as self-represented (pro se) litigants. This trend is the product of a confluence of factors, including the wide availability of legal information and tools provided by websites such ours, DivorceToday.com.

It should not come as a surprise that the dramatic increase in the number of self-represented litigants has occurred in those areas of the law that are most frequently encountered by average individuals. There is perhaps no other area of the law that affects as wide a range of the country’s population as divorce. According to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, the lifetime probability for divorce and separation in the United States today is 50%. Yet for many people, retaining a private attorney in a divorce case would be financially devastating, if not cost prohibitive.

Services such as DivorceToday.com have provided a realistic, cost-effective solution for many individuals seeking simple divorces. The appeal of self-help divorce services such as DivorceToday.com is amply reflected in both the rapid growth of services providing self-help divorce kits to consumers, as well as the divorce statistics compiled by court systems throughout the United States.

Since its founding in 1999, DivorceToday.com has been grown from a modest local divorce forms service into a national provider of divorce forms that services all fifty states. Today, DivorceToday.com maintains word processing facilities in India, and has a staff of divorce paralegals to ensure that divorce forms are current in all jurisdictions. At bottom, DivorceToday.com’s transformation reflects the dramatic rise in the number of divorce litigants seeking (or requiring) a way to get divorced without suffering financial ruin.

The statistics compiled by the National Center for State Courts demonstrate rapid rise of self-represented litigants. In 2006, the NCSC issued a report in which it concluded:

Courts are continuing to see an increase in the numbers of litigants who represent themselves. Self-represented litigants are most likely to appear without counsel in domestic-relations matters, such as divorce, custody and child support, small claims, landlord/tenant, probate, protective orders, and other civil matters.

NCSC Memorandum on Pro Se Statistics, September 25, 2006.

The statistics relied upon by the NCSC came from various state court systems throughout the United States. Some of the more noteworthy statistics cited by the NCSC were:

  • In San Diego, the number of divorce filings involving at least one pro se litigant rose from 46% in 1992 to 77% in 2000.
  • In January, 2004, the State of New Hampshire Judicial Branch reported that 70% of domestic relations cases involved at least one pro se party.
  • In Utah divorce cases, 49 percent of petitioners and 81 percent of respondents are self-represented

Unfortunately, data is not compiled nationally with respect to pro se litigants. Therefore, relevant statistics must be obtained piecemeal, from the various state court systems.

The New York State Unified Court System has devoted more resources to the analysis of pro se litigants than its counterparts in other states. As part of its efforts to gain a greater understanding of the challenges associated with pro se litigants, New York’s Unified Court System surveyed individuals who appeared in court without attorneys. The Survey led to a report, issued in December, 2005, which concluded:

  • 60% of the self-represented litigants reported that they were unable to afford attorneys;
  • 47% of the self-represented litigants reported the need for written materials and forms to assist them in court;

Last year, the Star Tribune newspaper reported on the expansion of programs in Minnesota’s courts to meet the needs of the increasing numbers of pro se litigants. As in New York, the increasing number of pro se litigants in Minnesota was driven by the inability of the average individual to afford a private attorney. In addition, the article concluded that, like elsewhere in the United States, “the classic model of a pro se litigant is the one who goes to family court.” Star Tribune, May 28, 2007.

The trend toward self-representation in divorce is a national phenomenon that was made necessary by unaffordable attorneys’ fees. In this new paradigm self-help divorce services, whether privately operated or funded through the courts, play an essential role by providing inexpensive divorce forms that can be easily understood and used by non-attorneys.

Marc A. Rapaport, Esq.
April 18, 2008


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