Sunday, January 13, 2008

How to Represent Yourself in Family Court


When you must appear in Family Court, to deal with issues involving Divorce, Custody, Visitation, Child Support, Protective Orders, and so on, it can be difficult, particularly, if you decide to appear pro se - that is, if you choose to represent yourself.


Difficulty: Moderately Challenging

Things You'll Need

  • Some knowledge of the type of case you are involved in
  • Clear understanding of the facts of your case
  • Information about your Court's procedures
  • A pad, pen and folder
  • Your court papers and other documents important to the case
  • A somewhat 'thick' skin



Step One

DECIDING TO REPRESENT YOURSELF: Although it is often best to have an attorney represent you when you must appear in Family Court, and while you should seriously consider doing so if yours is other than a simple uncontested divorce or Family Court case, some folks choose to represent themselves, because of the high cost of legal fees, or in some cases, because they feel that no one can make the judge understand their situation as well as they can. People who represent themselves are said to be doing so 'pro se' or for themselves.

Step Two

ORGANIZE YOUR CASE: Do some basic online reading about your situation. Check sites like DivorceNet, which contain state by state resources, including articles written for non-lawyers about Divorce and Family Law topics. Next, write down questions you may have, and note any important issues in your case. For instance, if you need child support, identify the age at which child support stops in your state, how it is calculated, and what information the Court asks you to provide. Just get some basic information - don't worry about knowing it 'all'. Write a brief outline of your case (That's another article!) - what you are alleging and what you want the judge to do. Keep this to one page - a few headings and sub-headings should suffice to keep you on track.

Step Three

OBTAIN PROOF: Proof is the name of the game in Family Court. It is rarely, if ever, sufficient to simply state your facts. Proof can include testimony, however, you should, whenever possible, bring in documentary proof - in the child support example, you would bring in proof of income and expenses - tax returns and W-2 forms, 1099's, pay stubs, bills, receipts, and so on. When gathering proof, think about what you are trying to achieve. If you want more child support, for instance, you'd need to show proof of your increased expenses. Make copies of these items and put them in your folder.

Step Four

FILING AND SERVICE: Consult the Clerk at your Courthouse to find out how to file your petition (where you ask the Court for help) and how to serve it on the other party. In New York City, for instance, there are clerks who can help you complete 'fill in the blank' petition forms, or you can download them. Service can be tricky, so check the rules in your state with your Court's clerk or website.

Step Five

YOUR FIRST COURT DATE: Dress as you would for business, or church - nothing flashy or revealing. While you needn't wear a suit, don't wear jeans or flip flops, either. The judge may ask you if you want to represent yourself or if you want to adjourn (postpone) your case to get a lawyer. Depending on your state's law, you may also be advised that a lawyer will be provided by the Court if you can't afford to hire one. In New York, representation by 'assigned counsel' is offered to people in some cases, whose incomes fall below a certain level. If you say you wish to represent yourself, the case should proceed.

Step Six

TAKE YOUR PLACE AT THE TABLE: Watch the Court Officer for cues as to where to sit. If you are the petitioner or plaintiff, you are bringing the case, and you will speak first. If you are the respondent or defendant, you should have been served with a summons to appear in Court. (Tell the judge if you have not been served.) Open your folder containing your documents and copies. Have paper and pen handy so you can note important things the judge says. Also put your 1 page outline in front of you so you can recall your issues and points with ease.

Step Seven

TALKING TO THE JUDGE: Address the Judge as "Your Honor." When asked to speak, tell him / her why you are there. Speak clearly and simply in a conversational manner, but do not use slang. Resist the temptation to sound like a lawyer. Always be respectful, and keep your recitation short and to the point. Keep your emotions in line - do not vent, call your adversary names, or speak directly to him or her. Cases that bring folks into Court can be upsetting, can make you angry and dredge up old hurts - but this is not the place to air them. That does not mean, however, that you can't show your feelings. Be human - yourself - and the rest will fall into place.

Step Eight

BE RESPONSIVE: Answer the judge's questions, and listen carefully to his or her suggestions. If you do not understand something, say 'excuse me, your honor, I did not understand that.' You are your own attorney - you are expected to present your case. Also, you may have the right to read reports and attend attorneys-only conferences, but check with your Court's clerk about this.

Step Nine

SETTLING YOUR CASE: Family Courts often encourage parties to settle matters on their own or with the help of mediators. If the judge suggests mediation, strongly consider it, unless your case involves domestic violence or a serious problem with your adversary that would prevent you from working together with a mediator. Child Support cases are not usually sent to mediation as they are basically done 'by the numbers.' However, in custody, visitation and divorce cases, mediators, Court social workers and other negotiators, can help you narrow the issues and resolve your case without further litigation. Another good resource is the 'court attorney' or law clerk. This is a lawyer who works with the judge, who often tries to help folks resolve their cases before facing the judge.

Step Ten

GET IT IN WRITING: If your case goes to trial, the judge will issue a written decision. However, if you settle, which most cases of this sort do, you may have to draft the settlement document yourself. Settlements can take the form of Stipulations, which are simply agreements that you and your adversary can draft and sign. They range from the very basic "Visitation every other weekend, Dad to pick up at Mom's house, alternating holidays and 2 weeks vacation every summer" to formal, written documents which are signed by both parties and their attorneys. Make sure that you leave with a Court Order. The judge may sign the stipulation or you may draft a simple Order on forms provided by the Court.

Step Eleven

CHECK THE ORDER FOR ACCURACY: You will eventually receive a copy of your Court order. Read it carefully to ensure it states what was agreed on in Court. If it does not, contact your adversary or his/her attorney and let them know. Call your Court clerk and ask how to resolve the problem.

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