The train has been on the track for 20 years, but five members of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee didn’t think that was enough of a reason to make sure it stays there.
The issue is the ability of the nonlawyer staff of the Division of Child Support Enforcement to start the process against parents who are delinquent in their child support by signing petitions and motions. The division contends that Virginia Code § 16.1-260 and a 1988 attorney general’s opinion gives those employees the authority to do so.
Last year, a juvenile and domestic relations district judge in Fairfax ruled that Code § 8.01-271.1 requires an attorney to sign such pleadings and vouch that they are well grounded in law and fact. Fearing that the nonlawyer employees could be charged with practicing law without a license, the division is seeking a legislative fix in Senate Bill 788 and House Bill 1382.
HB 1382 sailed through the House Courts of Justice Committee 22-0, but Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, and Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, balked yesterday at the suggestion that it’s “a workload issue.” The division’s 45 attorneys and 445 support enforcement specialists issue about 56,000 petitions a year.
McDougle said it would be more efficient in his office if an assistant could sign off on routine paperwork, too. Stolle asked, “Do we have any other law where we authorize nonlawyers to do this sort of thing?” The answer from the committee’s counsel was, “No.”
Stolle said he was unpersuaded that Code § 16.1-260 could be interpreted as the division contends. “I think it’s more likely that the AG’s office issued a bad opinion 20 years go,” he said.
In the end, the efficiency argument prevailed on a 10-5 vote.