Saturday, December 27, 2014

A flawed complaint process for Guardians ad litem in Family Court.

A “Make-Believe” Complaint Process for Guardians ad litem in Maine Family Courts.

While there is little to no current data to tell us exactly what happens with consumers’ complaints about Maine Guardians ad litem, some have actually received action - in the past. We have talked with people who complained (years ago) and were - hold your breath - successful in getting  “corrective action” using the then existing complaint process. That was back then - before GAL immunity - over ten years ago.

In 2001, a bill, LD 164 HP 153 was submitted, which proposed that anyone serving as a Guardian ad litem and acting as the courts agent would have quasi-judicial immunity "for acts performed within the scope of duties of the Guardian ad litem". This bill in its final disposition was recommended to not pass - and it did not. In 2004, however, Guardians ad litem were given quasi-judicial immunity which did not take effect until 2005.

Since 2005 out of an estimated 150 possible complaints from consumers about their GALs, submitted to Maine’s chief judge - not one - zero complaints ever received  any “corrective action”.

What we have for the past 9 - 10 years is a broken, make-believe, complaint process.  Either it’s “make-believe”, or ... we’d all be forced to say, all Guardians ad litem are perfect and don’t ever need any correction or improvement. How could this be where the emotional toil of divorce is so high and a parents child(ren) is at stake.

It should be noted that any time a consumer of Guardian ad litem services takes the time to give feedback - or to complain - about the services, they are giving, what most organizations would consider, valuable information service. Consumers (parents) are telling our court system that there are apparent flaws in the product and/ or service that is being provided. While the complaints and feedback may not be flattering and may expose flaws within the system, complaints/ feedback would give Maine’s judiciary an insight into their service product flaws and an opportunity to improve the quality.  Or ... to prevent tragic internal abuses, public harm and scandal.

Businesses, such as Wal-Mart, Apple and Amazon want to know what the public’s thoughts are about the service they provide. They understand the cost involved in acquiring and retaining the good will of a customer, and that an upset customer can cause untold damage. In a closed system that operates with no competition, like Maine’s Judicial Branch, the concepts of customer service and customer good will and respect go right out the window.  It is an increasingly out of touch anomaly in a consumer driven society.

What are some of the problems that we see with our current and proposed court complaint process:

1. The use of an inflexible and out dated information system. The data that the Judicial Branch retains is on pieces of paper in boxes at widely scattered district  court houses. In order to access this data, one must go to a particular court house in person and deal with court clerks who are often busy, inefficient and feel put - upon - unless you are a popular lawyer. Further, there are limits as to how many records one may examine on a given visit without a fee. (As an aside please note that customer service is often a foreign concept as there is no reason for giving good customer service. My experience with court clerks is that they do not know the product, are rude to customers - unless as noted above a popular lawyer - and look down upon customers). The current date is not useable and/ or meaningful.

2. Any information that one may glean is fragmented, often hand - written and insufficient. There is no common integrated system to collect and process data. This makes it virtually impossible to properly analyze any outcomes of any complaint.

3. Because there is a lack of transparent data and systemic protocol for data collection about Guardian ad litem complaints, this impairs the ability to do a proper external analysis/review/oversight. What little fragmented data there may be for public review, is all but useless to tease out any meaningful data.

4. The inconsistent handling of complaints. While there is a published complaint process on the Maine Judicial Branch web site, it is more or less a series of descriptive steps, with no examples. With no examples the consumer has to do their best in crafting a complaint. Do I just tell the problem like it is (as the justices on the Supreme Court told us back in November) or should the consumer point out why there is a legitimate complaint by citing law and statutes? It is a guessing game.

You are provided instructions on where to file that complaint. Without how to instructions, some ‘prose’ people write pages and pages of their “story”; others try over and over, like a game of “20 Questions”.  Is this how to do it? How about this? It is a conundrum. There is no clearly defined complaint process and or procedures. No one to help a ‘prose’ or consumer of Judicial services.

Where do the Rules for Maine Guardians ad litem fit?  Are they the gold standard?  Oops ... !  Your case involved “judicial discretion” about the Rules, and the judge (with discretion) threw the Rules out the window! Sorry, complaint dismissed! No Rules, No instructions, No limits on judicial discretion! It all equals no real, functional complaint process!  None.

Functionally, it also means absolutely NO oversight of any kind for GALs.  THEY ARE PERFECT! Bad sports, whiners, complainers, get lost!

Until the Judicial Branch decides to take the complaint process seriously there will be a public user problem. The Guardians ad litem role will be an unsupervised, non-functioning, cruel imposition on the public, who are forced to pay for a product with NO “quality assurance” from Maine’s Judicial Branch whatever.

We, as members of the public, are asking the Maine legislature act so as to move the “oversight” of Guardians ad litem to the Bureau of Professional and Financial Regulation.  This would place complaints under the purview of an organization that is well set up to address public complaints on professions of various kinds and that has a strong “consumer orientation”. The current situation is a travesty.


For more information on what we are doing in court reform please contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook. Our number is: 207-370-9801.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Santa - They Are All From Kids Who Want BOTH Parents



While the cartoon is meant to make light of the Family Court debacle – there is a huge amount of truth in the message.

In many cases throughout the state and country we have heard stories of parents being ripped away from their children by our courts. These are parents who are solid citizens, who have no background of drug or alcohol abuse. No history of mental illness. They do have a love for their children and fight for them when things appear wrong.

For this they are often punished. Take for instance the case of Dalton v Dalton which went before the Supreme Court of Maine. With this case the lawyer actually represented the client – and fought for Sarah Dalton. The opening brief slammed the Guardian ad litem and the Family Court Judge on the case (it should be noted that the ‘judge’ in question went on to get a promotion back in April. This promotion is not related to this case). The brief sited case law as to why the court was in error. In the end it came down to aggressive lawyering on the part of Sarah’s lawyer as being bad. The complaint on the GAL and ‘judge’ was wiped clean and the mother who was fighting for her children was punished as was the lawyer.

We heard from a mother who earns at the poverty level – pays the GAL bill and pays child support to her ex (who it should be noted allegedly works for a family business and is paid under the table. He has managed to purchase a brand new truck and lives in a house that cost over $350.000.00. The reportedly earns in the neighborhood of $5000.00 - it is amazing that someone in an income this low would be given the credit needed for the house and truck). She went back to court to try and get some relief from the crushing financial burden she has been encumbered with. The 'judge' (who it should be noted is one of the four worse in the state told this mother that because she earns more than the father she is responsible for payment. To add insult to injury the 'judge' took even more time away from the little she has with her kids. It should be noted that the mother is still struggling to make ends meet.

Then there is the father who has fought for his son against all odds. He is up against one of the worst judges in the state (this judge is different than the one mentioned above but is one of four who are the worst in the state). He has no history of mental illness nor does he use or abuse drugs or alcohol (it should be noted though that his ex does). Yet he has had to go through a battery of mental health and parenting tests – his ex has not - at a huge cost to him. He has been stripped financially and is working two jobs to meet the child support requirements - his ex does not work. He is living as close to poverty as one could without actually being in poverty. To add insult to injury he has had his son all but stripped away from his life – to the point where on the few occasions he has had contact with his child – the child cries because he misses his father.

The list – and the pain – goes on. Every parent should have the opportunity to be a part of their child’s life. Every divorce should start off with the idea that the custody is going to be 50/50 and that one or both parent(s) will lose or gain from there. If one side suggest the other needs testing – then both parents should be tested. There should be an equitable balance between the two halves of the divorcing family. It is not a game to be played out with the children as the prize. The only reason why a child should have limited and tempered time with one parent or another if there is cause for that. This should be based not on some ambiguous and ill-defined standard such as “the best interest of the child” standard. But on a standard which can be measured and tested – we like the term “is the child safe”. Is a child safe in the house of a drug addict with mental health issues? Or with a parent who holds down a job and contributes to the family? Is the child safe in an ever changing environment? Or one where a parent has lived for years?

In 2015 we hope that there will be more even-handed division of a child's time of divorcing families between their parents. A child needs the wisdom of both parents and their families. Not to be limited to one. That will only come about if the current family court changes or goes away.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Thank you for following us on Facebook and out blogs. Please feel free to contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or call us at 207-370-9801 (ME). We hope you can join us in 2015 to bring about legislative change. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

DivorceCorp and MeGALert - Conflicts of Interest Within the Sordid Divorce Industry

Part 2 of the interview between Director Joe Sorge (DivorceCorp) and former psychiatrist and director of Maine Guardian ad Litem Alert, Jerry Collins. Part 2 exposes the conflicts of interest within the sordid Divorce Industry. Find out how the Judiciary in Maine handled the new law (LD 872 - An Act To Improve the Quality of Guardian ad Litem Services for the Children and Families of Maine) which dared to spoil their insider dealings.


DivorceCorp - Family Law Report: Jerry Collins Interview Part2

DivorceCorp - Family Law Report: Jerry Collins Interview Part1


If you would like more information and become involved email us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.



Friday, December 12, 2014

Divorce Corp - Backdoor Deals and Cozy Relationships between GALs and Judges

Director Joe Sorge (DivorceCorp) interviews Maine psychiatrist and director of Maine Guardian Ad Litem Alert, Jerry Collins. They discuss the backdoor deals and cozy relationships between the guardian ad litems (GALs) and other family court professionals. Families are forced to pay outrageous fees and often get little for their money.

Learn how Guardians ad litem demand excessive fees and are essentially unregulated in their practice. It is another shocking example of the corrupt practices in US family courts.

DivorceCorp - Family Law Report: Jerry Collins Interview Part1


If you would like more information and become involved email us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.

Update:

DivorceCorp - Family Law Report: Jerry Collins Interview Part2

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Connecticut - I'm hoping that the four hours I spent in jail - may make a difference

Many thanks Jerry!  This has been a very important week here in this state in the area of family court reform.

In summary:

In 2009, I was forced under the threat of imprisonment to liquidate my sons' college funds to pay a corrupt GAL who did nothing to help my sons. $28,000 was paid to this GAL –  who did next to nothing.

In March of 2012, we had another incident where my ex-wife abused my sons, one of whom has autism - all of it captured on police station surveillance video. I approached the family court with this video and asking them to help me protect my sons - but I did not want my ex-wife to have no contact, because I didn't believe that was needed or that it would be beneficial to my sons.

A new GAL was assigned to my case, and she immediately demanded I seek full physical custody - which I explained to her would not help my sons, especially the one with autism, and was not needed. They needed to see their mother and I had no right to interfere with that relationship – I just wanted her to follow court orders and to be able to make decisions in their actual best interests. Upon hearing this, the GAL cut off all contact with me and ignored me, while continuing to completely ignore ongoing violations of court orders by the ex-wife and as she worked to cover up yet another incident of abuse of my sons.

This GAL billed $26,000 for spending less than three hours with my sons, which neither I nor my ex-wife could afford to pay. I already took out everything I could from my retirement to pay her and my attorneys. I found out recently that my ex-wife was forced to sign over the child support checks I gave her to this GAL - who has no children of her own and has never raised a child. She has never practiced family law. She is not even registered to do business in this state.

Last October, the court issued orders finding that I was right – that my ex abused my sons. And then without a required financial hearing, or any motion before the court asking it make changes, the judge doubled my child support, ordered I pay 2/3 of the GAL’s fees and $7,500 to my ex’s attorney.  In essence, financially rewarding my ex for abusing my sons.

In October, this GAL, without any prior compliant or notice, ran to court and demanded that the court order my ex and I to pay her everything we owed her, immediately. My ex worked out a sweetheart deal, because her attorney is also a GAL and a member of the AFCC. They garnished her wages at $50/week.

For me - the head of our state courts' "Family Commission" targeted me. The now FORMER GAL, who withdrew from our case, filed a Motion for Contempt, hired an attorney to threaten and harass me with jail if I didn’t pay, and issued a subpoena seeking all of my bank statements.

All of this was completely illegal, unconstitutional and without any basis in state law, regulation or the Practice Book. Because the now FORMER GAL, had no standing in my family case to file or do anything.

All of this fell on deaf ears as Judge Bozzuto worked to railroad me to jail as quickly as possible. All of our motions were ignored, the fact that we had two appeals that stayed everything, was ignored. Due process and the proper scheduling and hearing of motions, was ignored.

On November 21st, without me being present as I had to care for my sons, Judge Bozzuto walked into a hearing with orders already in hand. She came into the courtroom with hanging orders - she talked for SIX PAGES of the transcript without either counsel saying a word or having an opportunity to be heard. She made up “facts” and made comments about me that had no basis in any evidence before the court. She focused only on what I was bringing home and now the draconian costs the court imposed on me – which made it mathematically impossible to pay what was ordered and to care for my sons.

She issued a capias against me with a $9,600 purge, which no attorney who saw it could believe or ever saw before. I spent a night in a hotel room to avoid a marshal and being arrested and taken away in front of my sons and family.

After hiring a new attorney, we negotiated with the marshals to have me turn myself in this past Wednesday morning, and with a 60 Minutes camera crew filing the event. This so my sons would not be impacted, as on Wednesdays they go back to my mother.  Prior to this, we lived in constant fear that a marshal would knock on the door and take me away - leaving no one to be able to care for my sons, especially my son with autism.

On Wednesday morning, I was handcuffed and put in leg shackles. I was paraded into court in front of Judge Bozzuto, whose first words were her surprise and amazement that after two weeks I couldn't come up with the $9,600 purge amount.

My attorney fired back, and informed her that she had no legal standing or authority to have me incarcerated. As an expert in appeals, her forcefully cited state law and the Practice Book - illustrating that as we had two pending appeals, everything at the trial court level was automatically stayed, and what she did in allowing the contempt hearings to continue, was illegal.

After some very tense moments where she threatened the attorney, she said she wanted to review the case and continued it for the next day. She ordered me released - but there was even a moment where she left it unclear as to whether I was still incarcerated or not.

The next day, in front of news media, with 60 Minutes sitting in the courtroom, and many supportive parents and court watchers, she backed down. She agreed to wait until the Appeal's ruled on the appeals and "temporarily vacated" the capias against me.

THIS IS WHAT IS POTENTIALLY HUGE:

What is before the Appeal's Court, for the very first time, is the question of whether the GAL's fees are attorney's fees or "in the nature of child support." If they are attorney's fees, I win and the GAL will have no option other than to go across the street and pursue her fees in civil court - where this belongs. If this is ruled as support payments, then I lose, and the question becomes why aren't the GALs payments added as part of the child support guidelines worksheet?

We also filed a federal lawsuit against the judge, the GAL and her attorney - citing violations of my Constitutional rights and state and federal debt collection laws.

I'm hoping that the four hours I spent in jail - may make a difference.

Peter Szymonik

Glastonbury, CT
www.divorcecorp.com

The Court Documents relating to Peter Szymonik's case:

2013 -
2013-08-17 Invoice for Professional Services Rhonda Morra

2014 -
2014 Payment History of Rhonda Morra Guardian ad litem Bill
2014-10-17 Fax from Teller of Contempt
2014-11-14 Invoice for Professional Services Rhonda Morra
2014-11-21 Judge E Bozzuto Orders

Maine Guardian ad litem Alert (MeGALert) supports Peter in what he is trying to accomplish in Connecticut. Peter has been in the forefront of Family Court reform in that state. If you have been threatened by your Guardian ad litem we encourage you to contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com of find us on Facebook.

Phone 207-370-9801 (open 24/7)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Have you Suffered at the Whim of Judicial Discretion?

“Judging requires adherence to the constitution or statutory provision at hand.” Justice ElenaKagan, to Senate Judiciary Committee, 2010

The above quote from Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, says it all. Judges need to follow the law, like anyone else. Or... we would add, the law is in danger of becoming meaningless, with confusion and chaos reigning in the court room and “users” of the courts having no “true North” to follow. In its most favorable interpretation, judicial discretion may be considered an aspect of judicial independence, fitting a law to the actual situation at hand, but where there are clear constraints set down, they should be followed, or the court may be abusing its discretion and undermining the rule of law. Some law scholars claim that the absence of a jury in family courts, and therefore, absent a source of  “oversight” of judges  -  may enable an abuse of judicial discretion. “Judicial discretion”, when applied to the Maine Rules for Guardians ad litem, leads to confusion for users of these courts and huge bad feeling.  Do Rules for Guardians ad litem mean anything or not?  Does Judicial Discretion, when randomly ignoring or mis-applying Rules for Guardians ad litem, benefit anyone?  Does it not undermine confidence in the process and lead to suspicions of judicial corruption?

By reports “from the front”, we hear that many judges appear to have only a general knowledge of the Rules for Guardians ad litem.  Many Guardians ad litem, likewise, seem to have limited knowledge of their Rules.  But the users of Guardians ad litem services depend on these Rules for help in understanding the boundaries of permissible Guardians ad litem functioning in their case. It commonly happens that ‘Prose’ (and other) users of a Guardian ad litem's services know the Rules for Guardians ad litem better than the “Officers of the Court”!  But... to what end, if these officers, using “discretion”, throw Rules to the wind and run things on raw power? It is “because we are the mommie!” thinking.

The recent precedent-setting case, Dalton v. Dalton, raises troubling questions about the use of judicial discretion in family courts and how/whether the current Rules for Guardians ad litem are just words on paper? Or - whether - Rules be damned - Guardian ad litem activities may be any old thing - defended by ‘ad lib’ reasons. In effect, this places a Guardian ad litem's actions at the whim or caprice of the judge. To lay persons watching this performance, it suggests that the judge has historical powers - in an extreme form - of an absolute monarch. He may authorize a Guardian ad litem to do whatever he/she wants. Even more ominous in the Dalton case is the danger faced by the attorney who challenges this extremely broad Judicial Discretion. There is the risks of being in contempt of court. Truly, l’etat c’est moi! With unlimited discretion, a lawyer is reduced to the role of polite courtier or court flunky in this situation. A robust defense of a client is dangerous. A challenge of this “abused discretion” may result in serious sanctions (reprimand or loss of license).

A lawless Guardian who orders a mother out of her own home is acting with NO visible “Rule for Guardians ad litem” to back her. A Guardian who orders professionally unrecognized, “junk treatment”, scream therapy for a child has NO Rule to back her. These actions and others strike members of the public as being outrageous and way outside of the Rules for Guardians ad litem. Some would say that it is frank bullying, a gross abuse of power- and feel it is outside of the rule of law! But these actions (and more) were supported by the judge in the Dalton case. And... they - the Guardian ad litem and the Judge - were supported by the Maine Supreme Court in an appeal. The lawyer making the appeal was sternly condemned in the appeal decision. And faces possible sanctions from the Ba

Is the Court saying: A Guardian ad litem can do anything? Guardians ad litem are not required to follow their Rules? The Rules are just suggestions with absolutely no consequences whether they are followed or not? Is the court saying: the judge is an absolute monarch in his/her courtroom? Judicial discretion is the absolute, actual Rule?

It also appears that they are saying, “Woe betide any lawyer who dares to challenge this brand of judicial discretion in a family court?  Judicial Discretion as a ‘de facto’, idiosyncratic super Rules for Guardians ad litem” would appear to take precedence over any published Rules for Guardians ad litem on the Judicial Branch web site. One has to ask, what then are the Rules for? Are they a sort of bureaucratic “window dressing” for the benefit of the Legislature and the Executive Branches?

One also has to ask, is this sort of apparently, ‘ad lib’ rule-making by a judge in the best interest of families who use our courts, lawyers who work in them and for the well-being of Maine citizens, who want to trust and believe in  our courts!

We need a law that tells judges that if there are Rules for Guardians ad litem they cannot be dispensed with on the basis of “discretion”. They must be followed! Judges need to give a leadership example of respect for the written constraints set down.


Please contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com if you have experienced Judicial Discretion. Or like us/ find us on Facebook for up to date information.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Should I Be Part of a Class Action Suit Against My Guardian ad litem?


Recently there was talk about doing a class action suit against a particular Guardian ad litem. Three years ago I would have been in favor of something like that. Today not so in light of all of the actions brought against Guardians ad litem in the state. In 10 years there have been numerous complaints filed against Guardians ad litem with the Head Judge (this does not even take into consideration the complaints filed at the lower court). Out of about 150 complaints initiated by consumers do you know how many were successful in correcting/ removing the Guardian ad litem


ZERO/ NONE

Well there were two removed by the courts because of mental health issues but those were not initiated by consumers (I stand corrected). As a consumer interested in filing a complaint at the highest level you would be better off investing in the lottery. You stand a far better chance of getting a result (any result) from the purchase of a lottery ticket than you would in court.

In three years little has been accomplished in courts - rolling the dice and playing by their rules. They (the courts and divorce industry) hold the cards. On the other hand there is no reason holding us back from playing with a different set of rules a different deck of cards. Think Different.......

 Find us on Facebook of email us at MeGALalert@gmail.com

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Family Court , 'Quo Vadis? "improvement, reform or implosion"?


As we observe the big picture of Maine’s Family Courts, we sense that  our family courts appear to be slowly imploding. It is not a visibly dramatic happening that grabs public attention. It is largely unnoticed and unrecognized symptoms of decay from within. This process of decline is unnoticed, except, perhaps, by those who pass through the family court experience , and many of these victims are so wounded by the experience that it is hard for them to view the experience in a larger perspective. It is frequently hard for all of the active players - judges, lawyers and users - to "see the woods for the trees"! Let us consider a few of the amazing "systems changes" that are progressing, unnoticed, and that are, like termites, silently eating the structure of family courts from within.

“THE "TERMITES":  From our perspective, serious structural damage to family courts is being caused by the seemingly inexorable growth of 'pro se'  (self) representation in family courts. This phenomenon is occurring, not just in Maine, but in every state in America. In Maine, the figure for 'pro se' representation in family courts is reported to be a startling 74% and growing. There is also the eye-popping figure of 86% of family court cases, which have only ONE lawyer. The figures for 'pro se' representation, we might add, are even higher in Connecticut and NY. One has to ask, what is the impact of this amazing growth of self-representation on the family court system, on normal, professionally guided and determined family court proceedings? What happens to a professional legal system, with long traditions and well-established protocols for inter-professional relations, with a focus on complex, human problem solving, When one of the two "players" in these contests is underrepresented and completely  ignorant of how to function in the well-structured, traditional setting? General systems theory would suggest chaos and profound, unprogrammed, unintended changes in the way the system functions. Well-intended attempts to patch the traditional 'status quo' models, further change the original system and bring with them further unintended consequences. The working system is not as it was - try as it may. Some call it broken. The ‘pro se’ “trend is not its friend”!

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE SYSTEM?: With the invasion of 'pro se' litigants in family courts, desperate, frightened people with no knowledge or skill in the law and its traditions, turn the courtroom into a scene of confusion, stress, emotional pain and misunderstanding. Judges struggle mightily with "judicial impartiality" in dealing with the 'pro se' litigant. To help, or not to help - and how to do so without unbalancing fairness and throwing impartiality to the winds. How can a judge - without guidelines or traditions for handling this invasion of amateurs - try to maintain a degree of balance and proportion in a situation in which the combatants/ competitors are so unevenly matched? The 'pro se' litigant is always anxious, frequently frightened (or terrified) by the utterly unfamiliar environment, by the task of hoping to rescue a beloved child and by the daunting tensions of the contest. It is a forced visit to a very "foreign country" with unfamiliar rules, language and procedures. How to cross examine, what are rules of evidence and, then, there are all too frequently the "objections" raised at every turn by an opposing lawyer. What do they mean to a 'pro se' litigant? How should they be handled by the litigant and/or by the judge? Can an "impartial" judge help a baffled 'pro se' litigant deal with “objections”? Some judges do try to offer help and to be kind without violating impartiality, but it poses serious challenges to all of the "players". There are also a number of very troubling reports that some judges are rude and vent frustration with the ineptitude of 'pro se' litigants. "Don't come back to this court unless you have a lawyer!" has been the dictum of several judges. We’d say, there is a crying need for data to measure the scope of the problems? Then, one can address the second issue: how does one correct this total systems problem?

We'd answer those judges, who resist dealing with the legally unrepresented, by saying that no one in their right mind would undertake the personal stress and misery of 'pro se', unless motivated by great love for their children and financial hardship! The 'pro se' situation is never a happy choice for anyone, and no one decides to go 'pro se' unless they are utterly desperate! There is also the important question of "outcome"? Who wins  in these uneven combat situations? No one has answers to this question, but we are inclined to say, "Three guesses and the first two don't count!”  However ... there is a crying need for actual data to move the conversation beyond anecdotes.

PRESERVING FAMILY COURTS FOR THE SHRINKING 26% WHO HAVE (MONEY) LAWYERS: Apart from the 74% 'pro se' litigants without lawyers, one should also consider the remaining 26% who have lawyers. One might in all honesty say that the expensive Maine family courts are being maintained for this affluent  minority and (more importantly) their lawyers. As an arena for a few lawyers (and the associated apparatus of consultants and GALs), the whole operation has become known by the public (countrywide), as the divorce industry. Should family courts and their whole expensive apparatus be maintained at public expense for a 26% minority of litigants and the juicy financial interests of  "the divorce bar"?

AS NEWS ABOUT THE 'PRO SE' DISASTER ESCAPES THE SYSTEM: In this age of the Internet, the public learns quickly about the unhappy state of affairs of 'pro se' litigants in family court. Paradoxically, in many cases, the public may well know more than members of the Judicial Branch who are tightly isolated from news of serious malfunctioning, cruelty. Bad management and unintended harm to children by omnipresent, "due process" concerns.  The public, in all likelihood, knows more about specific courts and specific judges and lawyers than does the Chief Justice. But... the bad stories, once out, cannot be controlled or suppressed. It causes severe damage to the credibility of the courts. The mechanisms of channeling public complaints about the distressing dysfunctions within the system are not user-friendly, are very expensive and in terms of corrective outcome ineffective. But the complaints and the "scandals" cannot be stopped by a protective system and an ineffective complaint protocol. They spread out like an Internet miasma from Ft Kent to Kittery, from Maine to California. They give the family courts and their entire operation a very black eye. It is very reminiscent of the recent scandals in another very closed system, the Catholic Church. Old methods and techniques of suppressing bad news, bad results and bad people don't work. The old system is badly broken and out of control, and the target symptom of this malaise can be seen most clearly in the 'pro se' situation.

HOW TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEM - FROM WITHIN OR FROM WITHOUT? It is our strong impression that without some thoughtfully programmed intervention, a growing 'pro se' situation in family courts will lead to a massive major breakdown of these courts in concert with widespread, public, bad feeling spiraling out of control. It will be impossible to control this tsunami of bad handling of 'pro se' cases. As social media become increasingly aware, the courts will face increasing disrespect and a lack of public support. It is truly a simple question of "fix it, or it will fix you!" In our opinion, the usual Judicial Branch problem solvers, the "stake holders" are the wrong group to fix the problem. They are the 26% who benefit financially from the current  'status quo' of family courts. There is also the serious hard data problem. Nobody knows the full extent of the 'pro se' problem. It is impossible to formulate a fully rational, systemic, corrective intervention without data. Clearly, the definition of systemic data needs (and subsequent data collection and analysis) is not a task within the capability of a "stake holder's" committee.

We'd recommend a legislative audit of the 'pro se' problem, executed by a respected government agency with the capability of doing this. OPEGA comes to mind. The aim is not to embarrass or cause pain to anyone. It is to obtain an objective analysis of the 'pro se' system and to suggest  comprehensive systemic corrections. With sponsorship from all three branches of government, it would be to the credit of all to face a terrible problem with courage and intelligence.

For more information about what we are doing to change the Family Court system find us on Facebook or email us at MeGALalert@gmail.com

Thursday, November 6, 2014

New Rules for Guardians ad litem versus or ... Judicial Discretion.

We are sure that the 78 page document spelling out a set of new Rules for Maine Guardians ad litem represents many hours of work on the part of some Judicial Branch Committee. However, to this reader, they are a very perplexing document. Exactly what are they supposed to be? Are they a job description? Are they some sort of regulations aimed at governing and bounding the work related actions of Guardians ad litem in divorce and custody (and protective) cases? Are they a set of voluntary guidelines to be followed if the GAL wishes? Are they well intentioned (but empty) ideals? What are they? It is far from clear.

Any set of Rules on paper may look fine, but their value and meaning  come from whether they are enforced or not- and how. For these new Rules there  appears to be no enforcement. There appears to be no consequences of any kind for not following them. There is no designated entity responsible for oversight to see if the Rules are being followed. There is nothing we can see, except for the reporting of complaints by the ‘pro se’ public. This complaint process itself is a confusing procedure guaranteed to fail. To this reader the message in the new rules seems to be: "it would be nice if Guardians ad litem learned these Rules and tried to follow them. But if they don't, not to worry. There are no consequences.

The complaint procedure speaks loud and clear to these issues. For family courts in which 74% of litigants are 'pro se', the complaint protocol spelled out in the new Rules is frankly unusable. It's complexity, its lack of instruction about "how to", its legalistic posture, its insistence on "innocent until proven guilty" even in cases needing only minor corrective action, its extreme concern about due process, makes it bullet proof against any public complaint. It also has no use as a management tool, a heads up from a member of the public that is simply aiming to improve GAL quality in cases of less serious malfunctioning. We guess that the court feels that GALs don’t need management? GALs all over Maine can heave a sigh of relief. Courts can breath easier. The complaint procedure won't be used, or, if it is used by an unaware 'pro se' litigant they won’t succeed in penetrating its airtight defenses.

For the time being, Guardians ad litem will be able to escape any consequences of  ‘pro se’ public complaints, but please don’t think that this will make the  GAL problems go away. They will just fester, suppurate, expand and grow larger.  Sooner or later the GAL malfunctioning problems will be uncontainable and a public scandal will burst through!

The "Catch 22" about the proposed new Rules (or the current ones) is that their courtroom enforcement appears to be totally a matter of judicial discretion. They can be discarded, amended or altered if a judge- quite independently of any rules - decides to order GAL actions not covered by the Rules for Maine GALs, or ... to ignore flagrant violations.  a piece of this problem- in our experience- is that many judges and many GALs lack specific, detailed knowledge of the GAL Rules and have only a "general idea" about Rules for GALs.  "Judicial discretion" seems to allow for creative use of the Rules in any which way.

To many of us, the recent Maine Supreme Court appeal, the Dalton vs Dalton case, appears to tell litigants that even a well-documented carefully reasoned exposition of what looks like a gross abuse of current GAL Rules by the GAL and documentation of a similar situation by the  judge  risks a "contempt of court" complaint.  It also risks "hand signals'  to the Overseers of the Bar to open a 'sua sponte' complaint against the lawyer who dared to document the problems.  The implications of this series of actions seem clear to us: any lawyer who robustly defends a client faced with dysfunctional judicial or GAL behavior is in extreme professional danger. DON'T DO IT!

The answer to correcting the dysfunctions in GALs and judges seems to be to bury the problem, until the weight of scandal and and corruption from within cannot be suppressed. A massive public cry of outrage and a demand  for action ensue.  The fairly recent scandals in the Catholic Church come to mind as an example. Suppression only works for a shorter and shorter period in the age of the Internet.

In our interest for reform, we are tempted to say to the Judicial Branch, "Do nothing.  Let your unenforced Rules and your unusable complaint procedures stand exactly as they are.  In the long run, they have within their carefully crafted attempts to control and suppress the truth (at a time when the Internet dictates that “you can run, but can’t hide”), the inevitable roots of a huge scandal, forced change and reform.  We're just not there yet!

There should be an easier way for all.

We shall overcome.  ... someday!

Please contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com for more information.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lawyers, Divorce Industry Like Mike - Should You?

We try to stay clear of partisan politics. After all, children's welfare in divorce and custody shouldn't be a partisan issue. So we try to remain "non-partisan",

BUT ...

Quite frankly, from the perspective of our Family Court, and Guardian ad litem (GAL) reform concerns, we "Don't like Mike" - that is Mike Michaud, one of ( 3 ) candidates running for Governor of Maine. In fact we would say to our GAL and Family Court reform friends, "Vote for anyone else for Governor, but not Mike!"

It's nothing personal, Mike, its your "special interest" lawyer friends, supporters and the fundraisers who we don't like! It is Maine's divorce industry that is "hell bent for election," divorce bar lawyers raising money for "Mike" like it is going out of style and the other, so - called "impartial" divorce industry people silently cheering for "Mike". They are hoping that he wins and that his gratitude for their support will preserve the very lucrative 'status quo' in our creaky, old, dysfunctional, Family Courts.

ASK YOURSELF - WHY DOES THE DIVORCE INDUSTRY SO AVIDLY SUPPORT MIKE MICHAUD? Why are lawyers, law firms and the judicial branch supporting Mike? The financial investment they are making in Mike Michaud is an investment in keeping the family court as we know it. It is an investment in their retirements, their children's education and their way of life.

Take a look at some of Mikes supporters:

Michael Asen Esq (MittelAsen) - has helped fund raise for Mike on several occasions - 07/25/2014; 08/11/2014; 08/14/2014;

Michael Asen Esq has also been quoted by the Portland Press Herald as saying “My highest priority is making sure we don’t have another four years of this governor.” in an August 12, 2014 posting and referring to Gov. Paul LePage. Remember Gov. Paul LePage signed the Dutremble bill LD 872 "An Act To Improve the Quality of Guardian ad Litem Services for the Children and Families of Maine" which the Judicial Branch hated as did lawyers and Guardians ad litem. Michael Asen Esq is also the chair of fund raising for Maine lawyers who like "Mike".

Diane Dusini Esq (MittelAsen) - has helped raise money for Mike on at least one occasion - 08/11/2014. It should be noted that is also the President of the Maine Bar.

Stephanie Cotsirilos - former Wall Street Lawyer - has helped raise money for Mike Michaud - 08/11/2014.

Robert Gips Esq (DrummondWoodsun) has helped raise money for Mike Michaud - 08/11/2014.

Neil Jamieson Esq (Prescott Jamieson Nelson & Murphy) has helped to raise money for Mike Michaud - 07/21/2014; 08/11/2014.

Brett D. Baber Esq (Lanham Blackwell & Baber) has helped to raise money for Mike Michaud - 08/11/2014.

Janis B. Cohen Esq. has helped to raise money for Mike Michaud - 08/11/2014.

Elizabeth Scheffee Esq. (Givertz Scheffee & Lavoie, PA) has helped raised money for Mike Michaud - 08/11/2014.

Richard S. Berne Esq. (Law Office of Richard Berne) - is helping Mike Michaud with campaign contributions - 08/11/2014.

WHY DO THEY LIKE "MIKE"?  You can bet that it isn't just out of the goodness of their hearts, and it isn't because the divorce bar wants our kind of Family Court or Guardian ad litem reform.  They expect that "Mike's" "pay back" for their financial bucks will be strong support for the "divorce bar".  Keep lawyer privilege!  Keep our family courts as they are - a gold mine for lawyers and the Divorce Industry. Keep consumers out of this unregulated "industry".  "Mike" has a political  reputation for being an obedient,  good, ol boy. The divorce bar and their good friend, Senate President Justin Alfond ( 07/21/2014; 08/11/2014; 09/23/2014 ), are banking on a tight relationship with "Mike". Alfond is reported to have already told Senators in his caucus, enough already with GAL reform; the lawyers don't like it!

WE'D BET THAT MANY WITHIN THE JUDICIAL BRANCH ARE ALSO SILENTLY SUPPORTING  "MIKE" TOO (and not just their "prayers and good wishes"!). He is their kind of guy; supporting the interests of the "divorce industry" and will not supporting Family Court or GAL reform - just exactly as they are.

DO YOU SUPPORT THE "DIVORCE INDUSTRY"? A vote for "Mike" supports the divorce industry and perpetuates our victim-hood in Family Courts. Use you precious vote thoughtfully, carefully and in the best interest of our children. Your vote can make a difference. Please, friends, anyone but "Mike" for Governor of Maine, please!

We'd also say, check out where our candidates for the Maine Senate and House of Representatives stand on our reform issues. We're splitting our vote on these candidates depending on whether they support our family court and GAL reform positions. For us, it's not about Republican or Democrat; we call ourselves "Childocrats"!

JOIN THE CHILDOCRAT PARTY TOO!

MeGALert is a grassroots organization and like minded people who have a vested interest in the states Family Court process and reform. Please feel free to contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Judicial Branch - How Do Pro se Litigants Feel About Their Court Experience?

With the non-response response from the Judicial Branch we reach back out asking whether or not the Judicial Branch has interest in the Pro se problem in Maine.


From: J M Coll <jacol1@xxxxxxxxxx.net
Sent: Sep 30, 2014 11:46 AM
To: Mary Ann Lynch <mary.ann.lynch@xxxxx.xxxxx.gov
Cc: "ddusini@xxxxxxxxxx.com" <ddusini@xxxxxxxxxxx.com, "Villa98staterep@xxxxx.com" <Villa98staterep@xxxxx.com, "ddutrem1@xxxxx.com" <ddutrem1@xxxxx.com, Beth.Ashcroft@xxxxxxxxxxx.Xxxxx.gov, Governor@xxxxx.gov
Subject: Re: Our 'Pro Se' conversation on Wednesday

Mary Ann Lynch, Esq
Media Counsel
Maine Judicial Branch

Dear Mary Ann,

Thanks for your very prompt reply to my e-mail (on a Saturday morning, no less!). It is useful to get an official Judicial Branch position so quickly.

About the content of your reply, what can I say?

Your response to my e-mail is masterful. You “defend the J.B. fort valiantly”, but in all fairness, I wasn’t intending to attack the “fort” in any way - either in our very brief phone conversation, or in my subsequent e-mail to you. The email was intended as a simple clarification (expansion) of points in our conversation that you asked for. You suggested “a proposal”, if I recall. Despite disclaimers by me that my remarks are not a "proposal", you seem to have over determined them as such.  In my opinion, a position statement or an actual proposal about ‘pro se’ reform issues would need many inputs from many people - not just you or me.

The tone and focus of your reply, however, deflects attention from the serious ‘pro se’ epidemiological questions that I actually raised in the email, and that need answers to be used as “tools” for any serious problem solving. So ...  let me repeat the questions:

  • WHAT SHOULD THE GOALS FOR  ANY ‘PRO SE’ CORRECTIVE INTERVENTION BE? 
  • WHAT IS THE NATURE OF MAINE’S FAMILY COURT ‘PRO SE’ PROBLEM?  
  • DOES HAVING A LAWYER MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN OUTCOME OF DIVORCE AND CUSTODY?  
  • HOW DO ‘PRO SE’ LITIGANTS FEEL ABOUT THEIR COURT EXPERIENCE?  
  • HOW DO FAMILY COURT JUDGES FEEL ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCE WITH ‘PRO SE’ LITIGANTS? 
  • HOW DOES THE DIVORCE BAR SEE THE ‘PRO SE’ PROBLEM?

I am reasonably certain that neither you nor anyone in the Maine Judicial Branch currently has answers to the above vital problem-solving questions. I am sure there are opinions and anecdotes, but no actual hard, working data.

I also suspect that these questions, and their use in data collection and subsequent use of such data in targeted problem-solving, may appear to be an unfamiliar problem-solving model to the Judiciary, its “stake holders” and to the usual problem solving ‘modus operandi’. They are a classic population-oriented, conceptual approach used since the 19th century in assessing and planning for issues in question for large, under served, at risk populations. With all due respect, I would contend that a “stake holders” committee is not a tool for solving an ever expanding epidemic of ‘pro se’ representation. Perhaps a legislative audit might be able to seek data and suggest remedies. Please, note in the previous sentence, the key word,” perhaps”! “Perhaps” you and your colleagues might wish to propose another approach to the same problems at hand.

As for your worry about “violation of the separation of powers”,  I hope I don’t appear to be someone, who - in a public conversation - would (God forbid!) ask the Judicial Branch Media Counsel to violate either the US or Maine Constitution! Legislative audits of Judiciary functions have been done by other states who revere the constitution every bit as much as we Mainers do. In Maine, we have the brilliant precedent of the 2006 legislatively approved audit by OPEGA of the Judiciary’s Guardians ad litem program. As I understand it, any of the 3 branches of government may propose a bill. You/your branch of government submitted a bill in 2013 dealing with GALs, using Senator Valentino as sponsor. It was hardly a unique event! As a firm believer in our constitutions - state and federal - I think we could study the epidemiology of ‘pro se’ and how to correct it without creating a constitutional crisis! “Where there's a will, there's a way”!

The "child's best interest" question that you raise, is another item that needs serious study and correction. In my opinion and that of many others, this one concept is the root of much that is wrong about family courts. It is the heart and soul of a lawyer-directed, inter-party competition, generating all of the most malignant contention in a divorce. It is the powerful driver of “billable hours” and thereby out-of-control lawyer’s bills! It serves “No one’s best interest”, least of all the child! If it requires legislation, what’s wrong with proposing it? What’s wrong, one suspects, is that if a corrective law were passed, the family court bar would metaphorically speaking  “go on food stamps”. That’s why the ‘status quo’ is so hard to change. But let it not stop us from trying!

Calling the divorce bar the “divorce industry” may offend you but is not far off the mark or disrespectful when one  does a detailed, “connect the dots” study (as we have done) of how members of this powerful group operate to preserve a very lucrative, privileged  ‘status quo’.

It would be helpful to get an expression of interest from you about a legislative audit of ‘pro se’. Any interest at the Judicial Branch? Or should we pursue this along other avenues?

Sincerely,

Jerry Collins

If you have had an issue with the court system we encourage you to contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com. Or find us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Pro se Problem in Family Courts - The Judicial Branch Response

September 26 a follow up email was sent to Mary Ann Lynch with the Judicial Branch regarding a conversation which took place on September 24, 2014 regarding Pro se problems. We published that email on Sunday September 28, 2014 so the public could read about the very real concerns of Pro se representation in the Family Court system. That letter/posting may be found here. There were several points that were emphasized in that letter to the Judicial Branch:

1. What should the goals for any Pro se intervention be?
2. What is the nature of Maine's Pro se problem?
3. Does having a lawyer make a difference in outcome of divorce and custody?
4. How do Pro se litigants feel about their court experience?
5. How do Family Court judges feel about their experience with Pro se litigants?
6. How does the Divorce Bar see the Pro se problem?

The points were made as some possible questions that could be asked in trying to solve the Pro se problem. They were not intended as a proposal but as a means to start a conversation about planning.

In response to that email and as a follow up to the conversation - we have the following email from the Judicial Branch.

From: Mary Ann Lynch <mary.ann.lynch@xxxxxx.maine.gov>
Sent: Sep 27, 2014 7:25 AM
To: J & M Coll <jacol1@xxxxxxxx.net>
Cc: "ddusini@xxxxxxxxxx.com", "Villa98staterep@xxxxx.com", "ddutrem1@xxxxx.com"

Subject: Re: Our 'pro Se' conversation on Wednesday

Thank you for your follow up. Your letter raises issues you did not raise in our conversation on Wednesday. For instance "defining custody-50/50" fundamentally changes the current law, that is,   "the best interest of the child standard."  I suggest this type of question is a question of what the state law should be, and the resolution lies fundamentally with the Legislature. It would a violation of the separation of powers for the court to become involved in efforts to change amend the substantive law. If your goal is to change the substantive law on family issues, you should bring these issues before the Legislature.

You also did not mention in our conversation Wednesday an audit or study to be done specifically by OPEGA. As you may know, the Court currently is reviewing the report of the Family Division Task Force. These recommendations are before the Court after a year of study and 8 public hearings conducted all around the state.  This report contains proposals and recommended changes to the court procedures governing family law matters. The Task Force report focus is on improving public service by, among other things, eliminating court events that cause unnecessary delay, and improving procedures to promote prompt and more effective resolution of family disputes. The comment period just closed, and the Court is now considering the report and the comments. It is premature to undertake another study, before the court has acted on the recommendations now before it. More fundamentally, an audit by OPEGA raises substantial separation of powers issues.

Your discussion of the significant challenges presented by people proceeding without lawyers, most likely because they cannot afford lawyers, is a subject that the Court has worked mightily over the years to address, (with proposals to the Legislature to provide civil legal services to low income Mainers and to encourage lawyers to provide free legal services. Indeed, in the next few weeks lawyers across the state will be recognized for providing free legal services to their fellow Mainers.). But the problem is not just one experienced in family matters.  It is a problem that cuts across every civil docket in our courts. Any study of the issue needs to address all civil dockets, not just family matters.  We welcome a renewed interest in this problem.

Finally, I do not think the continuing disparaging and pejorative characterization "of the divorce industry," is particularly helpful or productive.  I suspect I will be accused of stifling discussion. That is not my intent. My intent is to accord all involved with respect.

Mary Ann Lynch


If you have had issues in Family Court as a Pro se litigant we ask that you contact us at MeGALert - MeGALalert@gmail.com

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Pro se Problem in Family Courts

Mary Ann Lynch
Government and Media Counsel
Maine Judicial Branch

Dear Mary Ann,

It was a pleasure to talk with you by phone on Wednesday afternoon and to share a few thoughts about the very troubling 74% ‘pro se’ problem in Maine’s family courts. 74% is a powerful number that speaks to a socially unacceptable differential status of citizens/voters in the face of  justice. My purpose in calling you was  to be a “catalyst” for broad based problem-solving concerning the ‘pro se’ phenomenon. It seems to be growing numerically by leaps and bounds, despite valiant, well-documented efforts by your associates to contain it.

To me, as a former public health planner, there appears to be a lack of data about the nature of this problem that would be a vital necessity in designing a strategic intervention to reduce this unacceptable 74% number. The problem of ‘pro se’ numbers also appears to suffer (paradoxically) from well-intended attempts to try to solve the ‘pro’ se’ problem with inadequate problem definition. It puts “answers to the problem” before adequate “problem definition”, and thereby places the cart in front of the horse. Without wishing to disparage the ongoing work being attempted by those associated with the Maine Judicial Branch and the Maine Bar, I would suggest that there are some serious planning questions that need research and study before seeking answers.

Here, in brief, are a few of my thoughts, a recap and elaboration on our earlier phone discussion:

WHAT SHOULD THE GOALS FOR  ANY ‘PRO SE’ INTERVENTION BE? In any thoughtful, large scale, organized government plan, one needs clearly stated goals to aim for - and to keep the movement towards goals on target. I would suggest- tentatively- that the aim for the ‘pro se’ problem should be to reduce the incidence and prevalence of ‘pro se’ as a phenomenon in Maine family courts - “to move the “numbers needle” backwards”. To use a public health conceptualization, one might say ‘pro se’ is a growing epidemiological problem. What is the “epidemic” about, how is it spread over Maine’s “at risk” populations, who is vulnerable, what factors are causing it, what exacerbates its growth, what diminishes its growth and what “interventions” might well organized data suggest would be most effective? To that end, I suggest a sample of some very generic questions that an epidemiologist might ask before intervening in any epidemic.

WHAT IS THE NATURE OF MAINE’S FAMILY COURT ‘PRO SE’ PROBLEM? Beyond anecdote, who are the 74% of people who do ‘pro se’’ in Maine’s family courts? What sort of demographics do they represent? What ages, occupations, education levels, financial status, duration of marriage, number of children, geographic locations, previous marriages/relationships, health/mental health status?  What are the reasons that they are  doing ‘pro se’?  Financial reasons (examples)? Or other reasons?  All of these data would be useful tools in shaping rational problem-solving. Without such data, solving problems can only be based on anecdote, guess work, personal impressions, prejudice and bias. Bad information, as everyone knows, leads to bad answers!

DOES HAVING A LAWYER MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN OUTCOME OF DIVORCE AND CUSTODY? What is the statistical record for various types of outcomes for ‘pro se’ litigants? How do things go when one party has a lawyer and the other doesn’t? What factors favor what outcome when both parties have a lawyer? Are there statistics for law firms and lawyers showing records of wins and losses? How do ‘pro se’’, lawyers, and judges view the contest?

HOW DO ‘PRO SE’ LITIGANTS FEEL ABOUT THEIR COURT EXPERIENCE? Were they helped to do pre-court paperwork? Was the help that they received effective or was it confusing? Did they get help or coaching before going to court? From what kinds of helping sources? How do ‘pro se’ litigants feel about their courtroom experience?  Were they put at ease by the judge? Were they treated respectfully? Did they encounter judicial hostility or overt rejection? Were they listened to? How did they handle evidentiary challenges (“object, object, object!”) from opposing counsel? Were they included in all conferences and administrative issues? Did they feel that they received treatment in court equal to opposing counsel (if there was one)? Do they have ideas for simplifying the process for making it less time consuming, fairer and with happier resolution? How were they and their children impacted by the personal stress of the  ‘pro se’ experience and its  aftermath?

HOW DO FAMILY COURT JUDGES FEEL ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCE WITH ‘PRO SE’ LITIGANTS? What kinds of problems do they experience? What impact does ‘pro se’ have on courtroom procedures and process? What are the biggest challenges in this situation for judges? What would they suggest to solve some of the problems associated with ‘pro se’? Do they have suggestions that might diminish the incidence of ‘pro se’ ?

HOW DOES THE DIVORCE BAR SEE THE ‘PRO SE’ PROBLEM? Does everyone in a divorce and custody situation need a lawyer? What type of cases may not need a lawyer?  What about pre-court legal “coaching”? What about paraprofessional lawyers? What about defining custody as 50-50 in all cases- except proven abuse? What other ideas? What about disincentives for lawyers? What about fee caps on all cases, or needing certification from a judge to bill beyond a certain $$ figure?

Please, do not take the preceding paragraphs as any sort of concrete proposal. The remarks above are offered only as possible examples of epidemiological data for use in a very classic, rational problem solving process. The questions are more to get a conversation about planning going- or to say, we don’t want to go there, because...

To my thinking, all three branches of government should be involved in any such a conversation leading to a plan for action. The core issue at the heart of the ‘pro se’ problem problem is about how we are to treat Maine families and children in the throes of divorce and custody. It is a question about the well being of a  sub-population of huge importance to the future of Maine. Interest in the topic goes way beyond the interest and practices of one branch of government and one profession. Ideally all three branches of government should work on the issue and should sponsor the supportive legislation to enable the work. As to the question of who might  best do such a study or variations thereof in the interest of the public, my vote would be for OPEGA; others might have other choices. My personal aim would be to eliminate the dominance of “special interests” of stake holders from the “divorce industry”, who have been the dominant players heretofore. They don’t represent the people.

I hope this gives a bit more flesh on the bare bones we discussed on Wednesday? It is still skeletal!  It is just a beginning of a much needed larger conversation.

Thanks for your time, your always valuable perspective and your in depth knowledge of the Judicial Branch - and Maine government.

Sincerely,

Jerry Collins

CC: MeGALert

If you have had a bad experience in the Family Court systems or with a Guardian ad litem. Please contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Public Comment: Report of the Family Division Task Force (FDTF), 2013

This is an interesting report in which the growing 74%pro se’ problem is acknowledged, but it seems to despair of a solution. Maybe in time. Maybe never. But - we’re thinking about it and working on it. It’s just that the thought and work hasn’t been successful in containing the growth of the problem, in designing an approach, much less, finding answers to the problem.

It is our impression that the  current status quo, financial incentives  to the Divorce Industry, are mammoth! Seriously analyzing the ‘pro se’ problem, a serious legislative audit or serious problem solving might, God forbid,  “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” for the Divorce Industry! After all, as quoted in the Family Division Task Force Report, 86% of family court cases have only ONE LAWYER (see page 20 - IX. Addressing the Increasing Unrepresented Population; A. Court Resources for Un-repsented Litigants: "The number of cases before family law magistrates in 2012 with one or fewer attorneys approached 86%")!

Imagine that one lawyer (in the 86 % of cases) opposing a ‘pro se’ party. As work, it is a ‘slam dunk’ as if ”like taking candy from a baby”. Very easy money. Two “champions” in the legal arena; one with a full armamentarium of legal weapons, knowledge of legal protocol and procedure - the other virtually naked and unarmed. Care to put a little money on the probability odds of the Pro se winning? We are not saying that ALL ‘pro se’ parties lose, but the “odds” are not in their favor in these situations. The playing field is tilted in favor of the represented party.

The ‘pro se’ party in cases we know of is totally frightened of the court, intimidated by the age old etiquette governing functioning in court.

Let’s consider a few generic issues: Unreliable help from the court in serving papers and in compiling other necessary paper work. No full understanding of the Rules of Evidence, Rules of procedure, no knowledge of how to frame the case for presentation, no courtroom experience in examining witnesses, no techniques for dealing with almost constant barrage of, “I oppose” actions from the attorney for the other side. These are just a few (of many) items to consider. Then there is the matter of self-esteem and feeling unbelievably stupid in the alien legal culture of a family court (and this is doubly a problem for foreign litigants). Add to the ‘pro se’ nightmare the minimization of the problem (with good $$$ reason) by the bar and judges who vary greatly concerning: impatience, anger, put-downs, scoldings and kindness, patience and the very limited “help” from the bench that can be offered without challenges of  impairing their  “judicial impartiality”, fairness, “due process”. It is about ‘pro se’ FEAR, EMOTIONAL PAIN AND FEELING VICTIMIZED  in our Maine Family Courts.

Sorry, but that’s our reality check for readers of this document, and, remember, you asked for “public” comments. You might say that this is a ‘pro se’ comment. We are not a lawyers and no lawyer shaped our expression of concerns.

The ‘pro se’ problem more than anything else demonstrates the extreme (and growing) breakdown of justice in Maine courts and the near shameless financial opportunity afforded any lawyer who opposes a ‘pro se’ litigant! It is no wonder the “divorce industry" isn’t rushing to correct this embarrassing problem!

WE SUGGEST: We would suggest that the Court, the Governor, the Legislature submit a bill in January 2015 for an OPEGA Audit of  ‘pro se’ in our Maine courts. Let OPEGA look at: the numbers of cases, the growth of the ‘pro se’ trends, the experiences and feelings of ‘pro se’ litigants, the outcomes of their cases, the public perception of attitudes of family court judges about ‘pro se’, judges recommendations for change.

We would also suggest that an audit consider the question of what value do family courts provide to those going through divorce and custody?  Are family courts adding anything to the welfare of our Maine children and families? Or are they taking away?

Idealistically, we would imagine that these questions and others should be of interest to all three branches of Maine Government and to those involved in divorce and custody actions.  It would answer the “problem vs no problem” debate with facts and evidence.



MeGALert is working to bring about change and reform to Guardians ad litem and the Family Court system. If you have been involved in the Family Court process that makes no sense we urge you to contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook for support and help.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Response - to the Proposed Repeal and Replacement of Maine Guardian ad litem Rules

Hon. Leigh Saufley
Chief Justice
Maine Supreme Court


Dear Chief Justice Sauflley,

I am responding to the request from the Judicial Branch for comments from the public  on the proposed “new” Rules for Guardians ad litem. In my opinion, they are badly off the mark, if their aim is to help the majority of those public consumers, who might use them to understand how GAL’s function and how to make a complaint about a GAL’s defective performance. Perhaps unintentionally, they seem to distort the aims of the Maine legislature and the Governor who created the law in 2013. The Dutremble law was aimed at clarifying Guardian ad litem functioning with appropriate boundaries and protecting consumers of Guardian ad litem services from abuse by GAL practitioners. The proposed “new” Rules, as I read them, shift aim and focus of the 2013 Dutremble law, and, by proposed regulation seem designed to defend and protect Guardians ad litem, as members of “the legal guild”. Self-represented consumers of service are out of the picture altogether.

The proposed “new” Rules are lengthy (77 pages), often ambiguous and subject to many escape clauses. There are many statements in the Rules that are followed by exceptions to the rule. This oppositional duality throughout the Rules  neutralizes and confuses the intent, meaning and strength of the initial rule, and it probably reflects the anxiety of  “stake holders” on the working committee, who created the document. They may not want to be hampered or hemmed in by any Rules.

The section dealing with consumer complaints (see page 35 RULE 9. Guardian ad litem Review Board Complaint System) about Guardian ad litem services is written in complex legal language, full of references to other laws, unfamiliar to the general public. It prescribes a labyrinthine, multi layered procedure for making a complaint. Even relatively trivial, minor complaints must follow this protocol. As I read it and imagined using it myself in a ‘pro se’ effort, I felt shut out and stymied. The complaint procedure is written by lawyers for lawyers. It also proposes that all consumer complaints be managed by the lawyers'’ “guild”, the Overseers of the Bar, considered a formidable entity by most of the public. The complaint procedure is an airtight, legalistic, time-consuming, intimidating piece of work that virtually no untrained, unrepresented “consumer” will be able to use to complain about service. Preventing complaints from self-represented members of the public appears to be its purpose. Kill all public complaints with legalistic complexity. "Pro se" be damned, is the message I read!

The most troubling problem is represented by the authorship of the proposal “new” Rules for GALs. It appears to be the work of a “Stakeholder’s committee”, almost exclusively members of the powerful “divorce industry”. The authors show no consideration for how a ‘pro se’ (self represented person) is supposed to use the arcane, complaint “tool”. As you reported to me earlier this year, a startling 74% of family court users are ‘pro se’. It is being proposed by “stockholders”, who authored it, that this 74% majority be given a complex, “legal tool” that they will be unable to use in making a complaint about GAL service. The Rules, as a tool, by their complexity, would exclude the majority of public users from making a complaint on their own. Shouldn’t ‘pro se’ persons also be considered significant “stakeholders”? Their stakes are their children, their time and their life savings; not professional financial advantage. Their kids are priceless to them (and to all of us) and represent future, valuable human resources for Maine. Why are ‘pro se’ stakeholders denied a seat at the table that would reflect their proportional, numerical dominance in courts? It might be viewed as an exclusionary problem of vast proportions that needs correction in the interest of public fairness, and in the interests of reality. It is an awkward commentary on family courts in a democratic society.

We need to understand the present reality that Family courts at this time are no longer  the exclusively purview of an  elite, professional group of the legal profession when 74% of users are self-represented non-lawyers! It is time for everyone to awaken to these startling facts and address the  major, unstoppable systems change that is going on right now!

It also should be noted that the public complaint protocol is the only “quality assurance” mechanism for the public governing the actions of Guardians ad litem. Without supervision, with just 18 hours of “education”, with quasi judicial immunity, with no meaningful “oversight”, a complaint from a consumer is the only way to request  major or minor “corrective action” for a malfunctioning Guardian ad litem. If this procedure is so complex as to be unusable by non-lawyers, Guardians ad litem are essentially in a position of being granted secular infallibility by the Judicial Branch. One has to ask rhetorically: “Don’t GALs ever need some form of  correction; are they always “perfect?” Can’t one find a more responsible way to correct and improve their function?

My opinion is that the Judicial Branch needs to go back to the drawing board and begin again in writing new Rules for GALs. It needs to include proportionally the biggest group of players in family courts, the 74% ‘pro se’ users, on any planning committee addressing “officers of the court”. It needs to approach the whole issue of GAL management in a much less defensive, overprotective manner. It needs to listen to and care about the  systemic changes catalyzed by amazing numbers of ‘pro se’ representatives. The present document is “tone deaf” to ‘pro se’.  Is this its aim, or is it impossible for the Judicial Branch to escape the political influence and power of the divorce bar?

We sincerely hope this document can be rewritten in tune with current realities, and with participation of those who are major users of the GAL system. Would it help the Judicial Branch to overcome the powerful, internal, self-serving, lobbying politics of the “divorce industry Bar”, if there were to be  grass roots legislation empowering ‘pro se’ representatives on JB committees and throughout the family court system?

Your 74% ‘pro se’ statistic is a powerful number that  cries for legal fairness and appropriate democratic empowerment!

Sincerely,

Jerome A Collins, MD
Kennebunkport, Maine

For further information on the Family Court and divorce industry crisis please email at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.


For further reading:

2014-05-28 PROPOSAL FOR AN AUDIT OF ‘PRO SE’ REPRESENTATION IN MAINE FAMILY COURTS


2014-03-18 Maine Voices: We must work together to ensure justice truly is for all in Maine - a response

Friday, July 25, 2014

1999 Proposed rules for Guardian ad litem

Anita St Onge - unofficial spokes person to address the committee

Terry Hayes, David Kennedy, Ken Altshuler were also mentioned as members who participated in drawing up the rules for GALs. This audio was provided to us by the Cleaves Law Library and dates back to 1999. The library has been helping us locate rules/ standards and guidelines that were in place prior to 2000.

It is interesting what the concerns were back then (these are stated in the first 3 minutes of the audio). The complaint process is mentioned and there is an interesting comment/ concern about how a complaint would filter down to the underlying profession of a GAL.




The audio may be found here. The format provided is mp3.


Please comment by either posing here or emailing us at MeGALalert@gmail.com.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Maine Guardian ad litem - Proposed Repeal and Replacement of the Rules

NOTICE OF OPPORTUNITY TO COMMENT

STATE OF MAINE
SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT
NOTICE AND OPPORTUNITY FOR COMMENT

Proposed Repeal and Replacement of the
Maine Rules for Guardians Ad Litem

Comments due on or before September 12, 2014, at 4:00 p.m.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court invites comments on a proposed repeal and replacement of the Maine Rules for Guardians Ad Litem. The proposal comprises the work of both the Guardian ad Litem Stakeholders Group, chaired by Hon. Robert E. Mullen, and the Guardian ad Litem Task Force, chaired by Hon. Warren M. Silver. The Supreme Judicial Court has not yet undertaken a detailed review of the proposals, and the proposals are presented now for public comment to allow for the greatest amount of input and comment before the Court undertakes its review. Following the period of public comment, the Court anticipates holding a public hearing. The proposed rules are posted on the Court's website.

Any comments must be filed with the Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court by Friday, September 12, 2014, at 4:00 p.m. Comments in writing should be mailed to the address below. Comments sent via email may be in the text of an email or in an attachment to an email, addressed to lawcourt.clerk@courts.maine.gov. If the comments are in an attachment, the attachment must be a document in portable document format (.pdf). The Clerk's Office will acknowledge receipt of the e-mail via a reply e-mail.

All comments must contain (1) the name, mailing address, and telephone number of the individual submitting the comments; and (2) the name, mailing address, and primary telephone number of the organization (if any) on whose behalf the comments are submitted. An individual need not be an attorney to submit comments on behalf of an organization.

Dated July 16, 2014

Matthew Pollack
Executive Clerk
Maine Supreme Judicial Court
205 Newbury Street Room 139
Portland, Maine 04112-0368
(207) 822-4146

If you want to comment but want to do so anonymously we ask that you email us at MeGALalert@gmail.com and we will submit your comments with any identifying information redacted.

Further resources:
2013-02-08 Deputy Chief Judge Robert E. Mullen says that Guardians ad litem are wonderful

2014-04-19 Do the Maine Board of Overseers and Stakeholders have your Best Interest?

Friday, July 4, 2014

As a Guardian ad litem - What Would You Do?

Imagine you are a Guardian ad litem tasked with making a recommendation on a case and you have the following to deal with:

One member has just accused the other of molesting the child of this divorcing family. You recommend that the accused has only supervised visits with this child. The Family Court Judge backs up your recommendation.

But there is a twist

You see the accused has another child with another partner. What do you do?

1. You do nothing - that child is not a party to the divorce.
2. You recommend that the accused parent can only have supervised contact with both children because that parent poses a threat to both of them.
3. You have Child Protective Services come in and determine whether or not the accused is really a threat.

Tell us what you would do - Either add a comment here or click this link which opens up in a new TAB or window.

The results will be published on Monday 7/8/2014

Sunday, June 29, 2014

According to Family Court - Field Trip to Bar Late at Night is Good for Child

File this under lack of Common Sense within the Family Court System -

As a parent if your four year old child came to you and told you she was scared of being in a situation your ex put her in what would you do? If your child was taken to an adult environment, a bar, late at night where there was loud music, alcohol and intoxicated adults involved. What would you do?  Would it make a difference if you were involved in a divorce and custody battle? It might.

Most parents would try to take some kind of protective action for their child. If a Guardian ad litem was involved – you would complain to them; after all, that is what they are put in place for. Clearly a child (no matter what the age) being put into an inappropriate adult situation is not in the child’s best interest. Nor does the child feel emotionally safe in these situations. Common sense would dictate that this child (or any child) should be protected and removed from this situation or environment.

The child in question told her father that she felt scared being in the bars to which she was taken by her mother. She witnessed fights and yelling, and her mom's boyfriend being pushed around. “Bad words” were often being said between people. When the father brought this to the Guardian ad litem's attention (the person who is supposed to be looking out for the best interest of this child) – the Guardian ad litem stated that the father simply did not trust that his four year old daughter was in good hands. The father, concerned for his daughters safety, continued to make his point and express his concern. His concern was not taken seriously by the Guardian ad litem. Instead of investigating whether or not the situation of a child’s late night visit to bars was good for the child, this Guardian ad litem continued to blame the father for trying to cause trouble.

How are we to believe, as this Guardian ad litem and the Judge would seem to be doing, that this little girl's 'best interest' was served by late night visits to bars that she found frightening? What about the child's emotional safety? Is this kind of place a good moral environment for children? To say the least of what this child is learning from the experience? We would say that common sense was not used by the child’s mother nor by the Guardian ad litem for that matter. Sadly, this type of poor judgment is frequently seen with quite a number of Guardians ad litem in the State of Maine. Examples like this are the reason why there is now - and has been - a very real need for Guardian ad litem and Family Court reform.

MeGALert is a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting parents who have been abused by the family court system. In addition we educate and promote reform through legislation - both here in Maine as well as nationally. We would encourage you to contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com and tell us your story. In addition we may be found on Facebook.

The Power of the Powerless - 2012 by MeGALert

Family Court Survey - We want your opinion regarding the experience you had in Family Court.