Navigating the Family Court without a lawyer or representation can feel daunting. This article aims to demystify the process and give you some useful pointers to help you to represent yourself at court.
If you are representing yourself in court proceedings you are called a ‘litigant in person’. The litigants in a case are known as ‘the parties’.
Sometimes there is more than one respondent and it can get confusing when more than one person makes an application. You might find it easier to refer to yourself and the other party as ‘the father’ or ‘the mother’ or just by your actual names.
Your case may be heard by magistrates or by a judge. The court may appoint a Cafcass officer (a specialist social worker) to investigate your case and report back to the court. They will usually want to meet and speak to your children, as well as to both parents.
What to call the judge
If your case is heard by a district judge, call them ‘Judge’.
If your case is heard by magistrates, call them ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.
If your case is heard by a judge with the title ‘His/Her Honour Judge X’, call them ‘Your Honour’.
If your case is heard by a High Court judge with the title “Mr/Mrs/Ms Justice X”, call them “My Lord” or “My Lady”.
Making an application
Many applications can now be made online, and where that is possible, it is usually the best option.
To apply for a divorce you need to create an account on the government divorce portal, which you can access from https://www.gov.uk/divorce/file-for-divorce. The website will then guide you through the various stages.
To apply for an order relating to the arrangements for children, you can make an online application by completing the online form at: https://apply-to-court-about-child-arrangements.service.justice.gov.uk/.
To make a different kind of application, including an application for financial provision on divorce, or if for some reason you cannot use an online application form, you will need to find and use the correct court form for the application that you are making. You can ask your local family court which is the correct form to use. The most common forms are:
- Form C100 – to make applications in relation to your children; if you are alleging that the children may have suffered or be at risk of suffering domestic abuse, then you will also need to complete Form C1A.
- Form D8 – to apply for a divorce.
- Form A – to start financial remedy proceedings in relation to divorce.
- Form FL401 – to apply for protection from domestic abuse.
You can submit your application by emailing it, posting it or handing it in to the court. You can find details of your nearest court by using the Court and Tribunal Finder website.
You may need to pay a fee; if you make your application online you can pay the fee online when making the application. If not, you can look up the fee on form EX50, or you can ask the court how much the fee is. If you cannot afford to pay the court fee, you may be eligible for a fee remission depending on your financial circumstances, if you complete Form EX160 (this application can also be made online at https://www.gov.uk/get-help-with-court-fees).
The court will then ‘issue’ (formally process) your application and will send a copy to you and a copy to the other party, and will generally send you a list of directions about what will happen next. If appropriate the court will arrange a court hearing.
- It is a good idea to read the guidance on the back of court forms (or embedded in the online application form), which sets out how to complete the form.
- You can find all of the court forms on the Form Finder page of the HMCTS website.
- If you do not hear back from the court, telephone them to make sure they have received your application, as paperwork does sometimes go astray. The backlogs in the court mean they can sometimes take a while to process applications and are not always easy to reach on the phone. If your application is urgent, it is important that you flag this when sending it to the court.
- If sending in your application in hard copy, provide the court with three copies of your application form and three copies of any other documents you file – one for you, one for the other party and one for the court file.
- Read any paperwork you receive from the court very carefully.
Any documentation that you provide to the court will be sent to the other party. If you don’t want the other party to know your address, and you are making an online application, you will be given the option to ask the court to keep your contact details private. If you are using an application form and do not want the other party to know your address, do not put it on the application form. Instead, include your address on a Form C8 and do not put it on any other documentation. The court will keep the Form C8 with your confidential address on the court file.
How to prepare for a court hearing
Communications from the court: Carefully read all of the documents from the court and the other party as soon as you receive them (for divorce this includes email notifications from the online portal). They may include important information such as the date and the venue for the next court hearing, or, if it is an online hearing, details of how to join it. They may also set out important “directions” (steps which you, the other party, or other people or organisations such as Cafcass need to take) including documents you need to provide by certain dates.
The Family Procedure Rules: Family proceedings are governed by the Family Procedure Rules, which are available online here. It is worth finding the section relating to your type of proceedings and reading through them, as they will explain how the case will progress. For financial proceedings, you should also read a document called “Statement on the Efficient Conduct of Financial Remedy Hearings”, which sets out additional requirements to be followed.
The bundle: at a court hearing, the judge and parties will usually have a file of the relevant documents, called the ‘bundle’. This will generally be in electronic format, called an “e-bundle”. If the other party is represented, their solicitor should prepare the court bundle. They should seek to agree the contents of the bundle with you in advance, and they should also provide you with a copy of the bundle (if you request a hard copy they may ask you to pay the photocopying costs). If both parties are unrepresented then, in financial proceedings at least, there is still a requirement for an electronic bundle to be prepared in PDF format, and this will usually be the applicant’s responsibility. If you are the applicant and you do not have sufficient IT skills or access to prepare an e-bundle, then you should contact the court as far as possible in advance of the relevant court hearing and explain the difficulty. In children matters if both parties are unrepresented you should prepare an e-bundle if you can as this will assist the court. Information on what to include in the court bundle is provided in Practice Direction 27A of the Family Procedure Rules.
Cafcass: if your application relates to arrangements for children, a Cafcass officer may telephone you before the first court hearing to ask you if you have any safeguarding concerns about your child or the other parent. Try to be as helpful and honest as possible with the Cafcass officer.
Witness statements: Depending on the type of case and how far it progresses you may need to prepare a Witness Statement. This is a document in which you set out the factual evidence on which you intend to rely. You should not include legal arguments in it. It is worth reading this guidance from the President of the Family Division (a senior family law judge) on witness statements – it includes a template for Litigants in Person to use in non-complex cases about child arrangements.
Position statements: before each hearing, you should prepare a position statement. This is different from a witness statement, and should focus on the legal position, explaining what has happened in the court proceedings so far and your position for the hearing, including what you would like the court to order. Your position statement should be typed if possible. It should not generally be more than three A4 sides long, though in financial remedy proceedings longer position statements are permitted – the exact length depends on the type of hearing as set out in the “Statement on the Efficient Conduct of Financial Remedy Hearings”. You should email your position statement it to the court and to the other party by 11am on the working day before the hearing. You should bring a few copies to court.
Special assistance at court: if you will need arrangements to be made due to a disability, or the assistance of an interpreter, make sure you contact the court well in advance to put in a request.
Participation directions for victims of domestic abuse: If it is your position that you are or are at risk of being a victim of domestic abuse carried out by the other party to the proceedings, the court must consider whether to make a “participation direction” to help you take part in the proceedings. This could include, for example, having a screen in the court room so you can’t see the other party, or joining the hearing via a video link. You can also ask the court to find a separate waiting room for you and a separate entrance to the court. Ask the court how they can assist you. You should chase this up with them more than once to make sure they have put the special measures in place. Remember, if you are a victim of domestic abuse you may be eligible for legal aid (free legal representation) if you are financially eligible – you can check eligibility here.
Representing yourself at the court hearing
There are different kinds of hearings depending on what application has been made and the stage of the proceedings.
Some hearings are now held online. Whether your hearing will be online will depend on local practice and the type of hearing. Any hearing at which an important substantive decision will be made, or where oral evidence is being given, will generally be ‘in person’, i.e. at the court.
Usually, the first court hearing is used to see whether the parties can agree, or whether a non-court dispute resolution method, such as mediation, may be suitable. If not, the judge will direct what evidence each party needs to provide so that the court has all the information it needs in order to make a decision. The following tips may be helpful whatever kind of court hearing it is:
- You should get to court an hour before the hearing if possible. If your hearing is online, make sure well in advance that you have all the necessary information ready to access the hearing at the right time.
- If you are representing yourself you can bring a friend or family member with you. They are called a ‘McKenzie Friend’. Tell the court and the other party that you have brought a McKenzie Friend. Your McKenzie Friend can sit next to you, take notes and help you to organise your papers. They cannot speak on your behalf unless the court gives them permission.
- When you arrive at court, check the notice board to see which courtroom you are in. Find the courtroom and hand your position statement to the court clerk. Explain who you are and ask them to hand it to the judge or the magistrates so that they can read it before the hearing starts.
- Sign in at the front desk. You may see that the other party has already signed in. They may wish to negotiate with you before the hearing. You can try to agree matters if you wish, but you don’t need to. It may be that some issues are agreed and others are not. Remember to give them a copy of your position statement as well.
- During the hearing you should take a note of everything that the judge says.
- If your hearing is online you must not record it, or have anyone with you other than someone permitted by the court to attend the hearing. You should keep your camera turned on unless permitted to turn it off by the judge.
- Check that the judge has had a chance to read your position statement. If not, provide them with another copy.
- You may feel angry or upset during the hearing. It’s OK to cry, but it’s important not to lose your temper with the judge or with the other party – try to remain respectful. If you do not feel you have had an opportunity to express yourself clearly, politely make sure the judge is aware that you still have more to say. It’s important to put all of your most important points in your position statement in case you get nervous in court and forget to say them.
- After each hearing a court order will be drafted. If the other party is represented, their lawyer will prepare the draft order for the judge’s approval. If not, the judge will prepare the order. Make sure that you have exchanged email addresses with the other party’s lawyer and with the judge’s clerk, so that you can check the order and so that you are copied into any correspondence with the court.
- Before you leave court, make sure you know and that you write down (1) when the next hearing is, (2) whether you have to file any documents and if so, by what dates, and (3) whether the other party has to file any documents and if so, by what dates.s
- Representing yourself in the Family Court can feel overwhelming, especially when the case is about your children and/or your future financial security and it matters so much to you. Court proceedings follow a process and are usually broken up into stages. So long as you have read everything from the court very carefully and you have followed the directions that the court has given you, you can’t go too far wrong.
The most helpful thing you can do to make sure you are really prepared is to draft a position statement in advance of every hearing and bring along a lot of copies. Don’t be shy to ask your friends and family for support. It can be really hard to take in and remember everything that was said during a court hearing or during a negotiation with another party, so it can be a great help to have someone else there to take a note. If you don’t feel you have anyone to ask, you can contact the Support Through Court project. This is a charity which operate in many family courts around the country. They can often make someone available to support you at court and even during your court hearing.
Above all, remember that the Cafcass officers and the judges are all very overworked and busy. However, their main priority is to make a fair decision, and if the matter concerns children then to make a decision which is in their best interests. Try to present your case clearly so that the right decisions are easier to make.