23 Apr Lessons I learnt from representing myself in court
If you’ve got a court hearing coming up where you’re representing yourself in court, you’re probably feeling nervous and uncertain. You may think you’re going to mess it up and jeopardise your case. Or perhaps you’re feeling confident enough, but don’t know where to start when it comes to preparing for your first hearing.
I know how you feel as I’ve been in your shoes, preparing for my own court hearing without knowing what to expect, or how to prepare or behave. So I wanted to share my experience with you and the journey that led me to training as a barrister and supporting other people representing themselves in the Family Court over the last 18 years.
The lessons I learnt might help you in your own journey of representing yourself in court.
Gaining more contact with my children after divorce
In 2001 I separated from my wife and was initially granted only one hour per month to see our two boys, then aged 3 and 10. There was a lot of tension between my ex wife and I, with her telling me once that I was no longer the boys’ father. This was very upsetting, as I’m sure you can imagine.
I made an application to court for more contact with my children and before the first hearing my ex wife allowed me to have either Saturday or Sunday with the boys. However, she would deliberately make things difficult for me. For example, she would say that I couldn’t have whichever day I asked for, so I made it a habit to only ask for the day I didn’t want as I knew then I would get the day I did want.
When I did go and collect the boys she would hold them tightly by the wrists and berate me for being useless, saying I wasn’t their father and they had to call me Simon as I wasn’t their daddy anymore. I had to tell her where I was taking them and what I was doing with them. When I did tell her my plans, she would do the same thing with the children the day before.
Once our case went to court I asked for overnight stays with my children on alternate weekends. There were several hearings and CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) supported this. My ex wife then said that overnight stays would ruin our oldest son’s chances in the 11 plus exam, so I waited for 4-5 months before starting to consider it again.
I then received a letter from her solicitor requesting that I not push for overnight stays; the letter said that this would not be granted anyway and that the court would never agree to it, so I should just accept it and sign their letter confirming I would give up on the idea. I didn’t sign and three weeks later we had another hearing.
At that hearing her barrister asked me when I wanted the overnight stays to start. I replied that I thought I wasn’t getting them, to which he laughed and said of course I would and that we just needed to work out the dates! That was all very frustrating, but after that overnight stays were arranged.
Things were still difficult after that though, with my oldest initially not wanting to stay with me because he knew his mother didn’t like it. All in all, my ex wife was hostile to contact until both boys had left home.
Throughout the whole process I represented myself in court without a solicitor, while my ex wife had Legal Aid due to being unemployed. I was incensed at how unfair everything was and it wasn’t until much later that I realised that the system is the way it is and however much you complain about it, things still progress in the same way. It is much better to fit into the system and follow it.
So that’s why I decided to train in the law and support others going through the whole process of self-representing in court, first as a McKenzie Friend and then as a barrister. The training and advice I provide now is based on the things I’ve learnt along the way from making mistakes and overcoming them. I firmly believe that anyone can represent themselves in court as long as you’re willing to put in a bit of preparation and learn the processes and procedures with some insider advice from someone like me.
Lessons learnt about representing yourself in court
1. You need to understand how the system works and what the judge needs to make a decision
There are processes and procedures you must follow in court hearings which can be hard to navigate when you’re representing yourself in court. It’s vital to get some support with this from an insider, that is, someone who knows the system and how decisions are made in court.
You most likely can’t afford a solicitor to help you, and that’s why you’re acting for yourself, but you need to get some advice if you can about the rules and how things work. You can obviously look online but really you need that insider insight from someone who has been there and done it.
You could look for a McKenzie Friend who has experience of assisting and advising people through the Family Court process, or contact charitable organisations like Citizens Advice. You could also look for some comprehensive training on the various aspects of representing yourself in court.
1. The system is what it is and everything will proceed through a set process no matter how much you complain about it
The system can be slow and convoluted, and hard to understand from a layman’s perspective, especially if you’re representing yourself in court. You may think things are unfair and unjust, as I did, but unfortunately nothing will change in the way court hearings proceed no matter what your feelings about it. This may sound harsh but it’s the truth, and you’re better off putting your energy into learning how the system works so you can do your best.
3. You need to write a good Position Statement to explain your situation and what outcome you want from the court hearing
A well-written Position Statement will help you when you’re representing yourself in court, while giving the judge the important information they need to make a decision. You can increase the chances of that decision going in your favour by making sure your Position Statement includes all the right information and that it’s clear and well-structured.
You might want to check out my previous blog post on how to write a good Position Statement which goes through why you need it, what it should include and how to structure it.
4. Parental alienation is common but there are ways you can deal with it
Parental alienation is when one parent manipulates a child into acting in a hostile way to the other parent following a divorce or separation. This is something I have personal experience of, as you’ll have read in my story. It’s likely that CAFCASS will be involved in assessing your situation and your children’s home environment, and they will work to identify any instances of parental alienation before making a recommendation to the court.
It’s important to remember that, no matter what your feelings towards your ex partner are, it isn’t acceptable to manipulate a child to get back at your ex or bolster your own position. If you’re the parent being isolated, make sure you remind your partner of this. If you find that this is happening frequently, try to gather evidence to back up any claims you make. There are other things you can do to try and deal with parental alienation, which I talked about in this previous blog post.
There are lots of other things I learnt from representing myself in court, but I think these are the main lessons. I hope they help you.
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