Getting a divorce is traumatic enough.
Add in being too broke to hire a lawyer, and having to navigate downtown Tucson's streets and find parking in order to fill out a stack of court documents laced with words that aren't even in a standard dictionary, and the challenge can become all the more overwhelming.
Pima County Superior Court Commissioner Dean Christoffel can't do anything about the torn-up streets and parking, but he is working on the gobbledygook found in court documents.
Before taking over as a court commissioner 1 1/2 years ago, Christoffel spent 20 years volunteering at Southern Arizona Legal Aid.
He learned approximately 80 percent of the people filing documents in family law cases represent themselves. They can't afford an attorney, and conflict-of-interest rules mean Southern Arizona Legal Aid can represent only one side in a domestic case.
As a result, Christoffel spent time every week at a table filled with 20 people struggling to fill out forms dealing with divorce, child custody issues, child support, paternity and spousal maintenance.
It's an incredibly stressful situation to be in when you consider "they have everything - their children, their savings, their house, their future at risk," Christoffel said.
It was that history that prompted him to try to change things when he became a commissioner. His first stop, the University of Arizona in search of students who could rewrite dozens of instructions provided to people representing themselves.
With the help of Jerry Hogle, a senior professor of English, and Barbara Atwood, Mary Anne Richey professor emerita of law, a handful of interns were selected for what they call the Simpla Phi Lex project.
Three semesters later, the first wave of those new instructions are on the verge of being published on paper and online.
People will no longer see paragraph after paragraph of frustration-inducing tiny, technical and repetitive words. Instead, they'll read conversational language wrapped around easy-to-read flow charts. An exclamation point surrounded by a triangle alerts readers to important points, and a traffic signal tells readers when they can proceed.
"Now they are written with the reader in mind rather than the law community," said Larry Hogan, a senior English major. "They are clear and easy to understand. If they follow all of the steps, filling out the forms should be relatively easy."
Those involved in the program say everyone wins - the citizens, English students and the law school students.
Hogle, the English professor, said people too often imagine that English majors spend their lives in little "ivory towers," but the Simpla Phi Lex project proves a writer's skills "can have a greater practical impact on daily lives."
"Our interns get to use their critical thinking skills and writing skills in a process that directly affects the lives of people," Hogle said.
Atwood said she likes that the program helps law students gain a perspective on what litigants are thinking and feeling. It also gives them experience collaborating with others.
At the beginning of every semester, Christoffel requires the new interns to fill out a divorce petition using the existing set of instructions and to come to court as though they are, indeed, going through a divorce.
They are not told how to fill out the petition, where the courthouse is, where to park or which courtroom to go to.
When they arrive in court, Christoffel calls their case as he would any other before discarding his robe, asking them about their experience up to that point and explaining the project.
Kirsten Tobin, a third-year law school student, recalls being overwhelmed when filling out the petition last semester.
"I think when you go to law school, you read a lot of old case law and your brain gets trained to think and write that way," Tobin said. "We had to break that habit (when rewriting the instructions)."
Kaytlyn Yrun-Duffy, who has been on the project since the beginning, said the instructions should have been rewritten a long time ago. The third-year law school student has enjoyed working with the English students, who focus on simplifying the language as the law school students work to ensure state statutes are complied with.
Hogan, the senior English major, is leading this year's team. The former software developer is using the same skills he used to write software instruction manuals to rewrite the family law instructions. He is also fine-tuning the graphics.
When he saw the original instructions, he was reminded of Internal Revenue Service documents, Hogan said.
"It's been great working on the project; Judge Christoffel has a wonderful vision," Hogan said.
Christoffel said there are 24 packets dealing with family law issues. Which ones litigants use depends upon each family's set of circumstances.
Sixteen of the packets' instructions are in the pipeline, he said.
Once the students are done with all 24, Christoffel hopes the students can begin work on instructions pertaining to the civil arena.
"But first we need to test the ones we've written," Christoffel said. "We are going to see if they are really working, if we've accomplished what we wanted to do."
Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or firstname.lastname@example.org