The practice is the divorce equivalent of ambulance chasing. Now, the Michigan Senate has taken action with SB 981, a bill sponsored by Senator Rick Jones [R-Grand Ledge], which seeks to prohibit lawyers from contacting a person or family member involved in a divorce filing until 14-days after that person is officially served with the divorce papers.
Our law firm has experienced this divorce solicitation practice first hand: we are retained by a client to commence and prosecute a divorce proceeding, we file the complaint with the county clerk, and before we can even get the other party served, BAM; a solicitation letter hits the mailbox and all Hell [potentially] breaks loose.
The primary concern among the divorce professionals who support the legislation is that, in cases of domestic violence, the spouse who filed for divorce needs time to seek a personal protection order. They also point to inflammatory language often contained in the solicitation letters as well as their effect of casting general derision upon our once-great profession as a whole.
At hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, lawyers opposing the measure indicated that the bill would have unintended consequences: a first offense is a misdemeanor carrying a fine of $1000; repeat offenders could do up to a year in jail and face a $5000 fine. Opponents of the bill also point out First Amendment considerations and argue that family law is a complex industry in which advertising is necessarily involved.
The State Bar of Michigan's Family Law Section has long-championed this type of prohibition, relying mostly on the domestic violence argument. The Section attempted to get the applicable court rules on service of process changed -something handled by the Michigan Supreme Court rather than the legislature- but the MSC declined on the basis that no empirical data was presented in support of such a procedural rule change.
When we are hired to file a complaint for divorce in the family court, we always advise our client that the new law suit is not a well kept secret. We inform our clients that: a) trolling lawyers are out there, and they will solicit the business of their spouse; b) within a day or two, the filing is reflected on the county clerk's court records on the Internet; and c) new case filings are contemporaneously published in the local legal newspaper.
Unfortunately, it must be noted that our state legislature sometimes does find it necessary to regulate the practice of law in Michigan via criminal statutes. For example, ambulance chasing in personal injury cases is prohibited for 30-days after the date of the accident.
As much as we support legislation designed to curb or limit domestic violence, we here at this blog believe that SB 981, as proposed, may suffer from constitutional defects. First, the measure interferes with a lawyer's important First Amendment freedoms, however distasteful the message. Also, as drafted, the measure seems overbroad, criminalizing conduct not targeted by the legislation and having an overall chilling effect on otherwise legal activities.
If you or a family member is in need of legal advice in the family law area, contact our law firm for a free consultation.