TOP TEN TIPS FOR REPRESENTING YOURSELF IN FAMILY COURT
If you read our last post and decided that you want to represent yourself in your family law case, or that you simply cannot afford any attorney to represent you, we have put together our top 10 tips for representing yourself in family court as follows:
1. Learn about family court and your family court judge.
You need to know that once a judge is assigned to your case, you will have a very small window of time, under very specific circumstances to change judges. If you go to court, argue your case and decide you don’t like your judge, it will already be too late to change the judge. It is best to learn as much as you can about your judge before you go to Court. Research your judge on the internet. Talk to attorneys or friends or family that might know your judge and get their opinions. You can, and probably should, even try to go to court ahead of your hearing and watch your judge in action.
2. Learn the laws and rules that apply to your case.
Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. If you choose to represent yourself, you are still required to know and follow nearly all of the same laws and court rules as an attorney. Understanding the law that applies to your case can help you focus on what it is that you need to prove. If you are confused about the law or unsure of which laws apply to your case, you can research the law on the internet, attend the Ask A Lawyer Program at the Family Court which is offered through Legal Aid, or even consult an attorney and ask questions. It is important to know that family court judges will not accept an answer of “I wasn’t aware of that.” It is your job to learn if you are representing yourself.
3. Do not give up without understanding the consequences.
When representing yourself it is very tempting to simply give up because you feel overwhelmed or unsure. Just as it is important to understand the law that applies to your case, it is also important to understand what could happen if you do nothing. Talking to a lawyer, even for a consultation, could help avoid disaster if you do nothing.
4. Make sure all your written submissions are complete, neat, and timely.
The Self Help Center at Family Court offer fill in the blank forms for individuals representing themselves in family court. Whether you choose to use forms or write documents yourself, make sure your forms are neatly filled out – judges will skip over sloppy writing or writing that drones on and on over the same point. You want to make sure your documents are complete and if you are using Self Help Center forms, make sure you provide all of the required information in the correct blanks and check all the appropriate boxes. It is also important to understand deadlines for submitting documents and it is your responsibility to make sure your documents are timely filed.
5. Do not bring your children to court.
Children are not permitted and court. In fact, most court rules preclude parents from even discussing their court case with the children. Find a babysitter or someone else to watch your children for the day of your court case. If a judge is interested in hearing what your children have to say, the judge may order that the children speak with a social worker or other court evaluator but only in very rare circumstances do the judges actually take testimony or interview children directly.
6. Attend all hearings and get to the courthouse early.
Some people think that attending a hearing in family court is a recommendation or suggest. Your family law hearing is not an appointment and the judge will not reschedule your hearing unless there is an extreme emergency. If you don’t show up to court date, you lose. It is that simple.
7. Bring your evidence and witnesses if required.
It is important to distinguish between a status check, motion hearing and trial. Usually evidence and witnesses will not be considered by the judge unless your case is set for trial. If the judge sets your case for trial or wants to hear from a particular witness or see a particular document, it is your responsibility to make sure your witnesses and documents make it to court in a timely, appropriate manner. The judge and the other side have no obligation to get your witnesses to court or subpoena documents for you – it is your job, when you represent yourself, to make sure these things are provided to the court.
8. Arrange for an interpreter.
If you do not speak English as a first language, it is your responsibility to have a Court Certified Interpreter present for your hearing. Interpreters must be arranged, and paid, in advance of your hearing. Do not show up and expect the judge or the other side to find an interpreter for you. It is also notable that family members and friends will not be allowed to interpret for you.
9. Conduct Yourself Appropriately in the courtroom and dress accordingly.
It never fails that folks show up to Court prepared to argue their case as if it were a reality TV show. This behavior is not appropriate for court and will not be tolerated by the judge. During your hearing, it is important to listen to the judge and to the other side. Take notes and only speak when it is your turn. Interrupting the judge or the other side is rude and just wont be permitted. Likewise, arguing with the judge or the other side is also a no-no in court and will not be tolerated.
In addition to your behavior, your dress will also be taken into account by the judge. There is no dress code for court but you should dress as if you are going to a job interview. Shorts and flip flops will not be permitted in the courthouse and you might be precluded from your hearing if you show up in shorts or flip flops. Also, you must take off your hat and/or sunglasses before entering the courtroom.
10. Come to court prepared and if you don’t understand something ask questions
You should be prepared to address the court when you arrive. You should have notes to present your argument to the judge and you should have any papers you want to show the judge readily available. Be brief in your presentation and get to the point.
Sometimes it helps to think of what you want from the judge (primary custody of children, child support, to stay in your home until the divorce is final, etc.) and to make a list of those items first. Then prepare a brief statement as to why you believe you are entitled to each one of those things. This should form the outline for the argument you present to the Court.
Judges sometimes forget that people representing themselves don’t understand legal jargon. While it is your job to learn as much of the terms and law as possible, if a judge uses a term you don’t understand or says something you are unsure of, ask the judge to clarify it.
Judges usually understand that representing yourself in court can be intimidating and emotional. If you don’t understand something, ask. It is your responsibility to make sure that you leave the courtroom understanding what happened and what, if anything, you need to do next.