Gender Bias in Florida's Court System: Access to Justice

1. Women who lack means are routinely denied their statutory right to retain competent legal representation. Without competent counsel, women are critically disadvantaged in enforcing their right to alimony, equitable distribution of marital assets and child support.

2. Many lawyers will not represent women in divorce cases because women generally have fewer economic resources and therefore cannot afford the fees.

3. Florida's public legal aid system is not a realistic alternative to private representation. There are not enough legal aid attorneys, nor are there any plans to increase the number to meet the need.

4. Current statutes require a judge to order the more financially secure spouse to pay the other spouse's ongoing legal fees and support if the request is well founded. However, these laws generally are not observed or are observed in a manner biased against women.

5. Many judges fail to require the more financially secure spouse to pay the other
spouse's fees and costs because of a false perception that attorneys can or are willing to "finance" divorce actions for their clients.

6. An award of attorney's fees, if it occurs at all, usually comes at the close of the case. Often, the award is reduced by the judge, especially if a woman attorney represented a woman litigant.

--1990 Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Report

And so Florida fixed these problems by enacting "timesharing" law???

1. I was not aware of any "statutory right to retain competent counsel." How does anyone know that they've retained competent counsel until actions have already taken place on the case?

I remember calling dozens of lawyers when I was in the pre-lawyer questioning-but-really-trying-to-get-some-free-legal-advice stage. I ran into some very generous attorneys who did not require that I come in nor pay a consult fee. I called mostly male attorneys because there were very few female attorneys. I also was initially calling attorneys in my area--which wasn't going to help me in the long run because my divorce case was not local. I asked them if a history of family violence would offer me any protection in the court. The answer: not exactly. I think one attorney told me to not even bother mentioning it.

How could I not bother to mention it when it was the SOLE reason that I behaved in the "unfriendly" manner that I did? How was I supposed to act? I had already spent enough years in totally denial.

For the divorce (the child visitation and custody came later) neither of us had attorneys. He got me to agree to a paralegal who would give us the paperwork and we'd come to an agreement, basically, because all we wanted was a divorce. Actually, all HE wanted was a divorce (and there was a VERY good reason for this that I could have never known)--we had been separated for some time and as far as I was concerned, that WAS a divorce...fuck all the paperwork shit...that cost money. He paid this paralegal that I never saw or heard from some $200. I swear she did nothing short of printing forms off of the internet.

I didn't seek alimony because I really didn't know much about it--only that White women get it a lot and as I figured my ex was too poor to be supporting me, what was the use. I never stopped to think what an awful position I was in--no job, no secure housing, relocated, in the middle of trying to finish college--I just wanted ties completely cut from our abuser.

2. Once I did attorney shop, lo and behold, no one really wanted to take my case. One attorney told me it was the worst thing he'd ever heard. Another [female] attorney told me I needed to take it to the appellate level (more on that later) and therefore she could not help me. And those were the ones who would talk to me for free. Otherwise, and attorney consult ran from $200-$400. WTF? I was only giving them an outline to see if they would be able to help me. Who had $200 to throw away?

As I was also a military spouse, there was legal available to me (and him) via that system...HOWEVER, they didn't get involved in any aspect of family law.

3. I didn't qualify for legal aid because I had a full-time job at this point. However, if I remember correctly, legal aid didn't handle this aspect of family law (they only dealt the child support stuff).

When I utilized the local domestic violence agency, I was told that legal aid could help me and that as a survivor, there would be no income restriction. I was so relieved. However, after meeting with the attorney and explaining the situation, 2 things happened:
  • A. The attorney told me best case scenario was since I knew this was about money, to offer my abuser less child support in exchange for total custody and control of my kid. WHAT? I was supposed to do this? What type of justice is this? I already had total custody and control of my kid for the kid's lifetime thus far--how could it be on the table? (In hindsight, I would do this in a heartbeat and would rather live in a homeless shelter than go through what I have.)
  • B. The attorney couldn't represent me anyway, because the case was in another county and my county didn't have the authority, nor funds, to do such a thing. WOW!

4-6. I have not once been awarded legal fees. In fact, I believe my attorney was afraid to ask for fees at one point because he said it would piss the judge off and we needed to wait until we were in the offense. Every time it was asked though, the judge "reserved judgement." Go figure. Not that my abuser could afford to pay my legal fees...and when he ended up getting himself a lawyer, I DAMN sure knew he couldn't pay both of our fees. However, had I ever gotten an award, perhaps I would have been able to keep my attorney...although I'm not sure how that works because you have to pay your lawyer as you go--fees are awarded at the end...and cases like this are never-ending.