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Case Study

Plain Language Success Story

From Judge Dennis N. Smith, Associate Circuit Judge, Missouri

Judge Smith picture

In 2007, Judge Smith attended a 2-day Plain Language Training, presented by readability expert, Maria Mindlin. The training, which focused primarily on court forms and legal information, prompted Judge Smith to create a plain language Notice of Hearing form for paternity cases.

Here’s what happened:

In Missouri, the Prosecuting Attorney files a paternity case when children receive public assistance. The potential father and mother are served. Some of the time, the father participates in genetic testing. The cases are then set on a docket. In the past, no notice of the hearing date was sent to the parties. Mother and father had both been served, but neither had filed any responsive pleadings so they were technically in default and no notice was required. The summons said they had to file an answer or otherwise respond to the pleading. No one on a docket would ever show up. Really. Out of 1,000 cases, you might have one person show up.

We decided that this entry into the lives of parents could be used to help the families. We decided to send the parents a plain language notice telling them when their case would be heard and why they should go the hearing. This is a copy of the form that we created: Hearing Notice.

The results have been amazing! In more than 50% of the cases, one or both of the parents show up for court. We are now entering parenting plans that include custody issues in approximately 25-30% of the cases. Often we are able to solve other legal problems for the parents. In one case we were able to help father get his children enrolled in school. They had been living with their maternal grandmother and were not enrolled in school. The mother was not available and did not appear. In another case, the parties were participating in a dissolution of marriage case. That case could not proceed without a separate paternity proceeding. We entered a paternity judgment and notified the dissolution court of our actions, and the parties were allowed to proceed with that separate litigation.

It is not uncommon to have a mother show up for court without participation from father. In some of these situations, mother tells us that father might harm the children if he is allowed to have unsupervised visits with the children. In the past, there was no protection for the children in these circumstances because a father has just as much right to custody of the children as the mother when there is no parenting plan ordered by the court. We have entered custody orders in these cases that protect the children in these situations. Some of the time, we have both parents appear and tell us that things are going well and they don't really need a parenting plan. But in some of those situations, we have helped the parents by using court staff to mediate and prepare a parenting plan that is acceptable to both parents.

It would be incorrect to state that the form has created a new environment for these kinds of cases. However, the clear and concise notice is easily understood, and now at least one parent goes to court in 50% of the cases. And when the parents come to court, we are able to help them.

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