Representing yourself in family court is extremely difficult. There are laws, procedures and local rules that have to be followed. There are specific documents that must accompany certain motions. There are strict deadlines that must be followed. On top of that, family law court is very emotional. Therefore, it’s always best to hire an attorney to represent you.
Most attorneys require a retainer and charge by the hour. A few attorneys charge based upon your income or on a reduced rate, such as Kansas Legal Services. However, you must contact Kansas Legal Services well before your court appearance to find out if you’re eligible for their services and to give your attorney enough time to review your case. If you insist on representing yourself, you should keep the following tips in mind.
1. Reconsider your decision to represent yourself.
A large percentage of litigants that represent themselves lose their case. Usually, it’s because they fail to meet technical requirements to prove their case or fail to follow court procedures. If a litigant loses, the court may order him/ her to pay the other party’s attorney fees.
2. Get familiar with the resources that are available to parties representing themselves.
It’s imperative that you understand the law and court procedures. You’re expected to know what documents to file, when they must be filed, how many copies are needed, and where they must be sent.
First, start by checking with the family law clerk’s office. That office may be able to direct you to places that have helpful information, such as self-help centers or places that have voluntary attorney programs. They can give you advice about what things you can ask for in court, what facts you should or should not present to the court, and what settlement offers to make or accept.
3. Review the court’s website.
The court’s local rules are usually located on the court’s website. The local rules will tell you what documents must accompany motions, and when exhibits must be exchanged with the other party and presented to the judge. Also, sample motions, proposed parenting plans and child support worksheets are usually located on the court’s website.
4. Make sure all your written documents are complete, neat and timely filed.
Some form of paperwork is generally required to let the court know what you are asking for and why you are asking for it. If forms are required, make sure you fill in every applicable blank and check all the appropriate boxes.
Always make sure your documents are neat and legible. If your written documents do not convey your arguments or the judge simply cannot read your writing, you have missed your opportunity to explain your story to the judge.
5. Learn the law and rulesthat apply to your case.
Even though you are not a lawyer, you are still required to know and follow the law and court rules. Understanding the law that applies in your case will help you focus on what you must prove to the judge.
6. Only include relevant facts in your written documents.
It may be important to you that the other party brought the children back late, but that fact is not relevant if the motion or hearing is about increasing child support. Adding facts that are not relevant to the issue before the court, makes the judge’s job harder by forcing her to search for facts that matter in between facts that do not matter.
7. Organize your facts.
Organizing your facts in a logical way helps the judge to understand your story. Affidavits or motions that jump from one topic to another, or from one event to another, make it hard for the judge to understand what has happened. Generally, it’s best to organize facts in chronological order. Sometimes, it’s better to organize events in a different order. For example, if you are going to talk about custody, child support and spousal maintenance; you might want to present facts about the children first, then address income and expenses of the parties, and then facts about child support followed by facts about spousal maintenance.
8. Attend all hearings.
Court hearings are not appointments that you can reschedule if you miss it. A judge can still make rulings if you are not present. If you need to continue a court date, you must get the other party to agree or file a request for a continuance. This must be done before the court date. If you wait too long, it might be too late to continue the court date.
9. Keep calm and respectful.
Keeping your cool and being respectful are very important when representing yourself. Address the judge as “Your Honor” or “Judge.” Make sure that you speak with a respectful tone, and refrain from sarcasm and displaying your disdain for the other party. Do your best to be polite to the other party. Showing respect for the other party in the courtroom will help you gain the judge’s respect. No matter how frustrated you are, do not interrupt the judge. The judge will give you an opportunity to tell your side of the story before she makes a ruling.
10. Make sure you understand the judge’s rulings before leaving the courtroom.
If you are unclear on the judge’s ruling, ask the judge for clarification before the hearing ends. If you wait until the hearing has ended, you’re required to file a written motion for clarification. That will cost you additional money and time that could have been easily avoided by simply asking for clarification during the hearing.