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BELL COUNTY

More filing for divorce without lawyer, slowing down courts

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by Matt Johnson

BELL COUNTY -  Already dealing with the highest divorce rate in the state, Bell County has  made major changes to its courthouse to accommodate the growing number of couples representing themselves in court.

"Their filling out of the forms is often pretty bad," said Michael R. Miller, a Belton attorney for more than 30 years "I've seen some pretty bad examples over the years."

Miller says his cases sometimes are delayed because a judge will schedule someone who is representing him or herself at the same time of cases with attorneys.  He says most people who choose to proceed without an attorney are extremely inexperienced and end up leaving judges and clerks frustrated.

People who opt to represent themselves, known as "pro se" defendants, often file incomplete or even incorrect paperwork.  They also spend time in the District Clerk's office trying to seek legal counsel with clerks who are not authorized to give such advice. 

This led to clerks working overtime to finish other work that had piled up while they were helping these "pro se'ers."

"Sometimes they would spent 30-45 minutes at our windows with our clerks, and that was bogging down the system," said District Clerk Sheila Norman.

Out of the more than 6,000 couples who filed for divorce last year, nearly half of them represented themselves. It became such a nuisance that Norman had to assign a new position and create a whole new window just to deal with pro se defendants.

Norman took action after hearing that district judges also complained about how improper paperwork would make its way to their courtrooms and how the judges had to then reschedule court dates.  It's then up to the taxpayers to clean up the mess.

"It costs the courts to have to reset them, it costs them to have to come back because they didn't have the proper documentation," said Norman.

Bell and Travis Counties are the only ones in the state who now offer online and specialized assistance for those looking to represent themselves in court, according to Norman.  Bell County has made use of numerous resources to better accommodate pro se defendants and make sure they do not slow down the court process.

As of 2009, Bell County had the highest rate of the marriage in the state, but also the highest rate of divorce.

Miller applauds the changes made to address the issue, but still senses confusion when he goes into work.

"Just about every time I go to the courthouse, somebody will approach me and say, 'I'm trying to do my own divorce...What do I do next?'"

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