A bill that would prohibit Maryland couples from divorcing by only filing written documents in court could cost consumers an additional $200 per divorce, according to a report released by Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Montgomery) this week.
The bill, sponsored by Senators Victor L. Crawford (D-Montgomery) and Jerome F. Connell (D-Anne Arundel), would block a state Court of Appeals ruling allowing couples in uncontested divorce cases to skip an appearance before a court master. Court masters are court employes who make decisions in divorce cases and charge a fee for service. The new ruling has been in effect since Jan. 1.
The bill passed the Senate last month on a 38-to-2 vote and is expected to sail easily through the House, where it is now waiting to be scheduled for a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
"There is no reason to punish people who have already reached an agreement (by collecting) a couple of extra hundred dollars," Simmons said before releasing the report prepared by his staff. "In large measure this bill is a reflection of the very strong interest and influence of attorneys in the state legislature.
"The issue is not easier divorces, the issue is lower legal fees for the consumer."
According to Simmons' estimates, 65 percent of divorces in the state are uncontested. If each appearance before a court master costs a minimum of $200--masters' fees and lawyers' fees--Simmons said the bill could cost Maryland consumers an additional $2.6 million.
Crawford, a lawyer, termed the figures "stupid."
"You're still going to have a master to read the forms," Crawford said, adding that his bill was an "anti-lawyer's bill."
If his bill does not pass and the Court of Appeals ruling is left intact, Crawford said, "People will be coming from all over the world to get divorced in Maryland. Maryland will become the divorce mecca of the world--we will be a mail-order divorce state. Instead of going to Haiti or Mexico or Nevada people will be coming here.
"What does Simmons mean? Lawyers will be making millions if my bill does not pass."
Until the court ruling went into effect at the beginning of this year, any couple seeking a divorce in Maryland was required to appear before a domestic court master to swear they were residents of the state and had reached agreements on property settlement and child custody. A divided Court of Appeals argued in October that the requirement forced couples who already had settled their differences to undergo the unnecessary expense of paying masters and lawyers fees, and therefore the practice should be abandoned.
Crawford contends that the court's ruling could wreak havoc on domestic courts. If people are allowed to submit written statements, rather than appear before the court, Crawford says that it will be easy for people who are not residents of the state to illegally swear that they are.
"If we had to put everyone in jail who lied before a notary public, we would have less jail space than we already have," Crawford said.
The Court of Appeals ruling was objected to by the court's rules committee and the Governor's Commission on Domestic Relations Law. A majority of the judges on the Baltimore Supreme Bench also has voiced an objection to the change in procedure.
The ruling, however, was supported by the Legal Aid Bureau and representatives from Help Abolish Legal Tyranny, an 85,000-member national organization, who say they also will lobby against Crawford's bill.