If you are representing yourself in the Family Court, there are some key elements that should be considered, and in this article, I shall explore these to help you be ready and present yourself in the best possible way.
Self-representation is often referred to as being a Litigant in Person (LiP) and essentially means that you are running your own case and speaking to the judge instead of a lawyer or other advocate doing this on your behalf. However, LiPs can still access support from other professionals to help with aspects of their case, if needed.
If you are a LiP, it is important to be fully prepared and understand your role in presenting your case and dealing with questions and points raised by the other side. This means fully reading documents that are provided to you, such as CAFCASS reports, position statements, Section 7 Reports and other evidence provided by each person involved.
Before the Hearing
You will need to gather your own evidence to support claims and your position. Evidence can include any of the following:
- Emails and letters or messages
- Other cases that support your position
- Witness statements (written accounts of a situation that are signed by the individual and a professional)
You will need to understand the law, cases which support or are against your points, relevant regulations, and be prepared to explain why these help your position, and show an understanding of where you may need to limit your arguments or show that recent case law does not apply in your situation. Lawyers will respect that not all cases help their clients and will think about how to advance their arguments whilst still referencing relevant law or regulations.
Prepare your Case
Using the findings of your legal research and review of the evidence, you will need to prepare your case. This will need to be set out so that each point you raise has something to support it. You will also need to address all points raised by the other person and provide evidence, law or other substantive reasoning to show the judge that these should hold less weight than your points.
Case preparation includes completing documents such as your claim form, responses, and supporting paperwork.
Work on the arguments of your case until you can put them into bullet points for you to reference clearly and with confidence. Know where each of your evidence is and where the judge can find it in the documents. Make it easy for the judge to find everything and cross-reference your arguments to your evidence.
Timeframes and Deadlines
Keep a note of all deadlines that are imposed by the Court or by law. These must be adhered to without fail. Record where the other side delays providing information or responding to you, and where they do not provide requested information or evidence. These gaps and delays may help you convince the judge about your position.
What happens on the Day
Court is a daunting place for anyone. The Court building and formality of security checks, staff, and lawyers can make you feel overwhelmed. As soon as you enter the building you will have to submit your personal belongings through security and then find your way to where your Hearing is taking place.
A Note on Hearings
Record the dates for your Hearings and ensure that you attend these. You will need to arrive as early as you possibly can so that you have time to prepare ahead of presenting your case. There may be delays and you will need to take food, stationery such as paper and pens, and check through everything before you present your case.
Hearings are formal procedures. Ensure that you wear appropriate clothing such as a smart shirt and trousers/skirt, and a jacket if you have one.
Follow good etiquette. This means that you should:
- Address the judge appropriately
- Never interrupt anyone speaking
- Remain as calm and professional as you can
- Try to avoid emotional language
- Show respect to all professionals and your opposition, even where you do not feel this
- Do not question anyone providing evidence unless the judge say that you can do so
When You Arrive
Each Court will have a list of hearings and which Judge is looking after the case. If you cannot easily see the list, ask a staff member and head to the Court room or area. Once you know where you are based, ensure that you find the facilities and know where you can wait and if there is some private space for you to be on your own.
Whilst You Are Waiting
There is a lot of waiting in Court. Therefore, be prepared for delays and find a way to keep yourself occupied whilst you wait.
The opposition may approach you and you may be invited to consider negotiations about your collective positions. This should be encouraged. However, do not feel obliged to agree to anything, and seek legal advice about anything that you intend to settle on. The Judge will look favourably on parties who come to a Hearing with agreed terms or an attempt to do so but you will not be penalised if you do not agree outcomes, unless you are being particularly unreasonable in your approach.
Hearings do not usually take long. The Judge will ask each of you to present your side and to hear any responses. The lawyer for the other side has a duty to help a LiP understand what is happening as part of the Hearing, but not to provide you with legal advice. The Judge will use plain English as much as possible, too.
When you are invited to talk, keep your points short and clear. Do not use emotional language and direct the Judge to your evidence and information.
Addressing the Judge:
Know who your judge is and ensure that you address them properly. As soon as you know who your judge is, record this so that you can address them in the most appropriate way (and never by their first name):
- Magistrates and District Judges – Sir or Madam
- Circuit Judges or higher – Your Honour
You may be allowed to Cross Examine the other side. This means that you can ask them questions about anything they have said or provided in evidence. Be ready to ask questions about the evidence you have read before the Hearing, and then take notes when the other person is talking so that you can ask questions about what they said, too.
The Judge will ask you about any negotiations or attempts to settle, and will direct the next steps such as to agree and write down terms, the date for another Hearing, and/or any key steps each person needs to take.
Having Support to Help You
All LiPs can have a litigation friend, who is someone to help you by sitting with you, explaining the law and what is being said. They cannot speak on your behalf and cannot act as your lawyer. Litigation friends can be a friend or other professional, a McKenzie Friend or someone from an organisation such as Support Through Court.
The Court must be satisfied that you have the capacity to represent yourself. This may mean having an assessment made by a healthcare professional. However, there may be no indication of capacity issues and the Court may decide that you can be approved as a LiP.
Links to More Information
There are some key organisations that can help you with understanding your role, rights and obligations as a LiP. Here are a couple of links that you can access and read. These are guidance documents, and so are not consumer-based brochures. If you need help understanding any of the points raised, please speak to me.
Bar Council Guidance for Lawyers: Litigants in Person: Guidelines for Lawyers – Bar Council – Practice & Ethics (barcouncilethics.co.uk)
LiP Handbook: A Handbook (judiciary.uk)
If you need assistance with any of the above issues or require support with your Hearing or case preparation, please contact Sima directly by calling 02073531746 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.