October 25, 2007

(Un)Common Divorce Myth: Court-Appointed Counsel

I had no idea people thought they were entitled to court-appointed counsel in anything other than criminal cases until I spoke with a friend who is a domestic relations clerk. He jokes that he must have a room in the back just chock full of lawyers waiting to be assigned by the way people imperiously demand court-appointed counsel in their custody or marital dissolution case.

Let’s debunk this myth, and quickly: in family law, you don’t get an attorney just because you need one and can’t afford one. In Oregon you may, with the court’s permission, get your filing fees and service costs waived or deferred, but that’s it.

This isn’t any sort of lawyer-conspiracy, but a matter of economics. The state can’t pay for attorneys for everyone who wants to get divorced or determine child custody — it’d be a huge expensive for something that is, on the face of it, entirely optional (it’s not at all like the court-appointed counsel someone would get in a felony case, when they’re facing prison time). It’d be kind of like requiring the state to pick up the tab for elective surgery.

So: having an attorney for your divorce? It’s a good idea — but it’s not the law.