Making Divorce Fairer

DIVORCE can be a protracted and expensive encounter with the legal system. Although fees vary from region to region and lawyer to lawyer, a 1992 study by the consumer affairs commissioner in New York City found that a contested divorce there can often cost $50,000. The study also reported that women can be particularly vulnerable to mistreatment by divorce lawyers.

Now, as one way of preventing lawyers from taking advantage of clients, Chief Judge Judith Kaye of New York's Court of Appeals has drawn up a far-reaching set of reforms that will give clients more rights and fewer surprises when lawyers' bills come due. These measures grew out of public complaints.

Beginning Nov. 1, lawyers in New York State must give clients itemized bills at least every 60 days, as well as a written fee schedule. Disputes over fees will be subject to binding arbitration. Lawyers will not be allowed to foreclose on a client's house as compensation for unpaid fees. They will also be prohibited from having sexual relations with a client during the case.

Some attorneys have accused Judge Kaye of singling out matrimonial lawyers. As Arthur Balbirer, head of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, has pointed out, "Justice sometimes can be expensive."

True. Yet Kaye defends her action by noting that matrimonial matters "are perhaps unequaled in their stress and emotion." The legal system, she says, has "too often added to rather than eased the human costs."

So expensive have some attorneys' fees become that a growing number of middle-class people are finding it necessary to represent themselves in family law cases involving divorce or child custody. That can be risky because of the complexity of statutes.

The new rules, which legal experts say are the most comprehensive in the nation, bear watching. At a time when divorce rates remain high, they could serve as a model for other states if they prove effective and if, as intended, they speed up court procedures.

Perhaps now, when "I do" changes to "I don't," couples in New York State will find that the sad process of uncoupling will leave more assets for the two separate households that must be formed where one existed before. This could be particularly important in helping to protect the economic security of women and children, who too often find themselves on shaky financial ground following a divorce.

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