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Court Divorce Workshops to be by Appointment Only

Nancy Fagan Interview with The North County Times

The long lines outside the Vista courthouse that start forming before dawn on Thursday mornings may shrink.

July 28 marks the last time the Vista court will host its long-running weekly divorce workshops on a first-come, first-serve basis, said Family Law Facilitator Susan Groves, who runs the court arm that helps people without an attorney face their divorce or child support cases.

Starting in August, spots in the workshops for people trying to file for divorce without using an attorney are available by appointment only “so that people don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and hope that they make it into the session,” Groves said.

The workshops, which run about three or more hours each Thursday, walk divorce seekers line by line through the paperwork that allows them to file for divorce. In Vista, that means 20 to 25 people a week who are lucky enough —- and early enough —- to land a coveted spot in the workshop.

“There is always more of a demand than we are able to meet,” Groves said. “But it occurred to me there had to be a better way.”

Scheduling appointments for workshop attendees instead of handing out the spots on a first-come, first-serve basis may seem like an obvious solution.

But the court has tried that before —- and failed. It used to set appointments for the popular workshops as far as five months out. But too many people were no-shows, leaving many classes nearly empty.

The difference with the appointments this time around, Groves said, is backup plans and limitations on sign-ups.

Now, the appointments will be set only a month out. And the court will still allow people to jockey for a standby spot to fill the place of a no-show —- similar to the way standby seating works for airlines.

The stand-by feature, however, means that people who didn’t get an appointment will still have to line up on Thursday mornings —- some show up before sunrise —- and hope somebody misses his or her appointment.

The workshops —- and other services of the Family Law Facilitator —- are available to everyone, regardless of income.

The appointment system is a positive move, said Nancy Fagan, who runs The Divorce Help Clinic LLC in Carmel Valley. But she also warned against buying into the illusion that paperwork can be completed during the workshop. Most people, she said, don’t bring all the information they need to completely fill out the forms to file for divorce.

“You have to expect to go back again and again and again,” Fagan said. “It is just a very long process. While it is free, it does take up time.”

Last year, nearly 1,000 people attended the divorce workshops at the Vista courthouse. That’s about a quarter of the more than 3,900 people who filed paperwork in 2010 at the Vista courthouse seeking divorce, legal separation or nullification of their marriage.

Grove’s department assists people facing family law issues —- primarily divorce, child custody and child support —- but who do not have an attorney on their side.

Her office does not represent these folks, nor does it offer legal advice. The staff doesn’t strategize with people, and there is no attorney-client relationship. Employees with the Family Law Facilitator simply help make sure these self-represented litigants fill out the paperwork correctly and follow through on their cases.

Last year, the Family Law Facilitator’s offices across the county assisted more than 103,000 people, including more than 20,800 in North County.

“There is a really high volume of people who need assistance,” Groves said.

To make an appointment, go to any of the Family Law Facilitator’s offices, including the one at the Vista courthouse. Appointments must be made in person, although there are plans to someday allow for appointments to be made online.

Source: The North County Times, San Diego