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New Jersey State Bar Association v. Divorce Center of Atlantic County

Decided: January 20, 1984.

NEW JERSEY STATE BAR ASSOCIATION, A NEW JERSEY CORPORATION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DIVORCE CENTER OF ATLANTIC COUNTY, RICHARD KRAMER AND MARSHA KRAMER, DEFENDANTS



Gibson, J.s.c.

Gibson

[194 NJSuper Page 534] This action by the New Jersey State Bar Association seeks to prevent defendants from engaging in what is alleged to constitute the unauthorized practice of law. Defendants, who are not licensed to practice law, operate as the Divorce Center of Atlantic County and are currently engaged in the business of selling so-called legal kits to members of the public. The case was tried without a jury and the following represents the findings of fact and conclusions of law.

FINDINGS OF FACT

As indicated, defendants are engaged in the business of selling legal kits to members of the public. They describe those kits as permitting laymen to resolve legal problems and affect legal transactions without the use of an attorney. Although the kits include other legal remedies such as bankruptcy, the proofs here were confined to the subject of divorce. In addition to the sales activity by representatives of the Divorce Center, the kits are promoted through advertisements in newspapers and in the "Yellow Pages." The Yellow Pages list the Divorce Center under the category of "Divorce Supplies" as well as part of the listing for "Lawyers."

Transactions conducted by the Divorce Center typically begin with an inquiry by an individual seeking to obtain a divorce or bankruptcy. If the inquiry is by telephone the individual is invited to come into the Divorce Center, at which point he or she is supplied with a written questionnaire to complete. The questionnaire contains basic information, including the customer's name and address, the name and address of the spouse, marriage information, alternative forms of relief, various grounds for divorce, methods of service, whether or not the person is desirous of a "divorce kit" or a "bankruptcy kit" and, finally, whether defendant's "typing service" is to be used. The form contains a disclaimer by defendants to the effect that they are not attorneys and that they are not permitted to give legal advice. The customers are required to certify that they are representing themselves in the action and that matters such as child custody, support, alimony, etc. are to be decided by them. Prior to defendants' use of this questionnaire (adopted following the initiation of this action), the same type of information was obtained by means of an interview, following which the data gathered was transposed onto the written form by a representative of the Center. The cost of the kit is $99. Typically, however, the customer will also choose the proffered "typing service," which costs an additional $85 (raised to $125 during the course of this litigation).

Following a completion of the written questionnaire and the payment of a deposit, and assuming that the customer chooses to obtain the "typing service," a representative of the Divorce Center completes a set of materials including a complaint for divorce, a summons, a letter to the Clerk of the Court and, depending on the type of legal service selected, a letter to the Sheriff and an instruction sheet. The instruction sheet describes the procedure to be followed in obtaining a docket number and completing the service of process. The procedure is broken down into three separate steps and the kit contains individual instructions for each. The final step includes a certification and request to enter default, a requested approval for trial, a proposed final judgment of divorce, instructions regarding the hearing process and examples of the type of testimony the individual will be expected to present.

The practice followed by the Divorce Center, however, goes beyond the selling of legal forms. The exchange between the representative of the Divorce Center and the customer includes the giving of advice and the interpretation of raw data for purposes of completing the various pleadings. The process, which as indicated is completed in separate steps, includes numerous exchanges of this type. The use of the advertising scheme, when combined with the manner in which the information is gathered and interpreted both verbally and in writing, creates an impression to the customers that the services rendered by defendants include expertise, guidance and advice in the area of divorce. The so-called "typing" service, for example, appears to be a veiled way of providing claimed expertise and guidance which go well beyond the mere typing of a form. Although no evidence was submitted regarding a reasonable charge for the typing of documents such as this, this court can take judicial notice that the $125 cost for what would otherwise be filling in a limited number of blanks is inflated. The proofs also included evidence of encouragement from representatives of the Divorce Center to have customers falsify information as part of the divorce complaint. It is unclear, however, as to

whether such incidents represent aberrations or a pattern of conduct. Given plaintiff's burden, the attempted showing regarding a pattern was inadequate.

No specific estimates or figures were supplied as part of the proofs, but it would appear from the evidence as a whole that a significant number of persons take advantage of this particular method of obtaining a divorce. It is also a fair inference that, although many people use these kits "successfully," a large number of them run into difficulty, both procedurally and substantively. Examples of the difficulties encountered include defects in the complaint, utilization of the wrong venue, failure to meet residency requirements, improper name changes and problems regarding the subjects of equitable distribution and support. It is clear, therefore, that, not only are defendants giving legal advice, they frequently give bad advice.

The factual findings would not be complete without some mention of the existence of what appears to be a genuine and, to a significant degree, unfulfilled need for low-cost divorces by a substantial segment of the community. Although specific proofs on this issue were not supplied, judicial notice can be taken of the fact that the only realistic alternative for such people is through Legal Services, which admittedly cannot satisfy the existing need without substantial delay.*fn1 To those people without funds to retain private counsel and not otherwise eligible for legal aid, a judicial termination of what is realistically a dead marriage may be out of reach. Evid.R. 9.

The procedural history of this case began in June of 1981 with the receipt of complaints regarding the Divorce Center by the Supreme Court Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law. After initial contacts by the committee with representatives of the Divorce Center, an agreement was entered into

between the parties which sought to curtail the activity thought to constitute the unauthorized practice of law. Following the execution of that agreement in January of 1982, the committee closed its file. As a result of continuing complaints regarding defendants' activities and apparent breaches of the agreement, however, the committee thereafter reopened its file and sought a new agreement with defendants which would have precluded any sales of the divorce kit ...


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