Attending court can be daunting. The idea of representing yourself in court for any reason could be terrifying. In the family courts, this is further compounded by the very subject matter being emotionally important to its participants.
All professionals involved in the family court do not want to cause you distress. You should always keep this in mind. No matter who you are speaking to, even if you feel overwhelmed and emotional, everyone is just trying to do their role. If you are courteous, others will be courteous in return.
Below, we have compiled our top tips on attending family court when representing yourself:
The family courts are largely investigative, not confrontational. The court wants the relevant information to make a balanced decision on the issues. Therefore, any submission you make should not be about ‘scoring points’ against the other side. The courts are not there to teach adults how to deal with each other nicely; they are there to ensure the best decisions are made for the welfare of the child.
Representing yourself in court. The basics.
Generally, attend at least an hour before your listed hearing. In the family courts, parties are expected to discuss matters prior to entering the courtroom. An hour sounds like a long time but it is comparatively little when discussing family arrangements that need to last until the children are into adulthood.
Speak to the usher prior to the hearing, to register your attendance, and to confirm if you have any special requirements such as to be accompanied into the hearing by a McKenzie Friend (that is a helper that can take notes for you, help organise documents and make question suggestions that you can ask).
All family proceedings are private so whilst it is only the parties that are allowed into the hearing, you are allowed someone to accompany you whilst you are in the waiting area; think about asking someone along who can support you, keep you calm and encourage you to focus on the important issues.
During the hearing, speak clearly and concisely. As a litigant in person the court may ask questions to assist you. When asked a question, answer it directly and try not to wander into other information which would lose sight of the key issues.
A good technique to control nerves in the courtroom is to pause and think about what you want to say before you say it. Slow down your speaking pace – it will give your brain time to think as you do but it also allows time for the judges to write down what you have said.
Be confident in your position but open to flexibility. It is rare any party walks into a courtroom and walks out with everything they are seeking. In child arrangement disputes it is the child’s welfare, not your own, that is the centre of discussions.
In court each party has an opportunity to speak. Whilst you will not agree with some information, every party has a right to be heard so refrain from interrupting. Instead, have a notepad and pen with you, jot down key words to remind yourself that you need to mention your view or evidence on that point when it is your turn to speak.
In the end, you must walk away understanding the consequences of the court’s decision and what is required of you. Professionals will assist you, and will not take advantage of your lack of legal knowledge. Do not be afraid to ask questions. In our view, closure often comes from understanding the outcome.
Postscript. Additional reading material is contained in a number of books explaining the law to people going through a divorce or separation. There is a range in our specialist shop. We have links to a number of organisations and charities who offer additional advice and support on these pages. If you are considering looking for alternatives to going to family court, these pages have some useful material to read through.
Nicola Scully & Scott Sharp contributed to ‘Separating With Children 101’, 3rd edition, (Bath Publishing, 2023)