Last year, the courts in the state where I practice changed how we caption domestic relations cases. Quick translation from legalese: our cases are no longer referred to as Party A vs. Party B. The new captions identify the parties and the type of case they have, like so:
In the matter of the children of Jane Doe and John Smith
In the matter of the marriage of Jane Doe-Smith and John Smith
After the changes were implemented, I grumbled my way through updating the vast library of templates I have created and amassed over the years. Lawyers are creatures of habit, and we like things to keep stable in our often-changing legal world. Updating my forms on a rare quiet afternoon was a tedious task that did not take much mental bandwidth and allowed me to reflect on the impact the new wording may have on the mindset of family lawyers and our clients.
Back when I was a baby lawyer in another century (okay, it was the late 1990’s but it still counts), how parties were referred to in domestic relations cases had changed from Plaintiff and Defendant to Petitioner and Respondent. The rationale was to remove the perception that the person who did not initiate the case had to somehow defend their conduct. Petitioner and Respondent – the same titles we use today – reflect the reality that someone files a case and, naturally, the other party responds to it. After many years of practice under my belt, the rationale for this change resonates with me as I routinely advise my clients – and remind myself on occasion – to respond rather than react.
One of the smallest words in the English language is also one of its most important: and. Often juxtaposed with the word or, and denotes inclusion and connection. It replaces “versus” in our captions. You may continue to have differences with your former spouse or partner, but you do not have to be adversaries locked in battle. It does not have to be you versus them in perpetuity. Your family is changing, but it remains a family. And I am hopeful that one simple change in wording will serve as an important reminder that words matter.