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Can I Represent Myself in Family Court?

Why people choose pro se representation and how to prepare to represent yourself in court.

For many who need to appear in family court, the initial impression of the process usually includes some involvement of a legal professional. Unfortunately, the reality of legal representation is that it can be challenging to obtain in civil cases. Even though there are considerable benefits to working with a lawyer, the cost of working with a family law attorney can inhibit their ability to seek representation. On the other hand, personal preferences can lead to individuals bypassing legal counsel and choosing to represent themselves in court. While the idea of showing up to court without a lawyer can seem absurd, self-representation is a valid option for those who wish to bypass legal representation.

What is self-representation?

Also known as pro se representation, with pro se meaning "for oneself" or "on one's own behalf" in Latin, self-representation is a perfectly legal option for someone who wishes to appear in court without a lawyer. People who represent themselves, referred to by the courts as pro se litigants (PSLs), must directly participate in all process aspects. While many believe the process may differ for people who choose self-representation, a judge's expectations remain unchanged regardless of whether the person involved is a lawyer or PSL.

Because of these unmoving rules, PSLs are held to the same standard as attorneys and are expected to meet requirements such as:

  • Meet all deadlines
  • Attend all relevant hearings
  • Complete forms properly
  • Follow court etiquette
  • Submit eligible evidence
  • Understand relevant laws
  • Speak in a formal setting

While it is typically advised against in criminal or significant civil cases, pro se representation is commonly seen in civil lawsuits related to less complex disputes.

Lawyer reading legal documents

How often do people choose pro se representation?

While it's not entirely typical, pro se representation is more common than many realize, although the estimations vary by organization. According to a study by the Judiciary Data and Analysis Office (JDAO) of the U.S. Courts, roughly 25% of civil cases the U.S. District Courts heard in 2019 involved at least one self-represented party. In contrast, the Self-Represented Litigation Network estimates that 40% of people involved in civil cases go to court without a lawyer. While there's a noticeable statistical difference, both figures show that pro se representation is, at minimum, an option that many litigants consider.

Why do people choose to represent themselves?

While an inability to afford a lawyer is the primary factor that forces people to resort to self-representation, people sometimes make the active decision to represent themselves because they:

  • Want to ensure their voice is heard
  • Prefer to avoid added tension in court
  • Do not like their hired representation
  • Anticipate an easy court process
  • Do not think a lawyer is necessary
  • Feel comfortable with legal procedures
  • Want more control over the process

Are there factors that make self-representation harder?

Even though people choose to represent themselves because it seems more straightforward, some circumstances can significantly inhibit a person's ability to be an effective PSL. The most common factor that indicates self-representation may not be effective is if the other party in the case has hired a lawyer. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to every family law case, but attorneys with experience in more complex issues can provide the guidance needed to ensure a fair outcome based on all relevant information.

Some factors that can make pro se representation complicated include:

Do the courts oppose pro se representation?

While pro se representation is legal and acceptable, it can often cause more problems for the court and judge presiding over the case if whoever represents themself does not put in enough time and effort to prepare. The judicial process is designed for lawyers trained in legal matters who can navigate it successfully. Even though there are online resources that can guide a PSL through the process, the unique circumstances of each case can make the process more complicated than it seems on paper.

When someone unfamiliar with these issues represents themself, it can end up causing much frustration in the court, especially for the judge. The person representing him or herself may feel continually interrupted, whether it's due to objections from the other party or corrections from the judge involved. In some instances, judges may strictly adhere to the legal process, move forward without offering an opportunity to correct issues, and be less forgiving of PSLs who continue to make mistakes.

Lawyer working on computer

How can I represent myself in family court?

Even with a considerable list of drawbacks, successful pro se representation is entirely possible with the right amount of time, degree of effort, and types of resources. Legal processes and systems are inherently built to be accessible for people without lawyers, especially with the prevalence of PSLs in civil cases. Additionally, there are ways to engage in self-representation while still acquiring legal assistance outside of court hearings. Here are 3 potential ways to effectively prepare to represent yourself in family court.

1. Study online legal and court-specific resources

If you feel confident enough to go to court without any interactions with a legal professional, you can prepare for court by studying various national and state-specific resources that are meant to guide PSLs. Most state court offices and websites offer information for people seeking to file divorce, custody, or other family law motions and represent themselves in court. Additionally, organizations like the American Bar Association (ABA) offer state-specific resources and information that help people navigate law basics and more simple legal problems.

While your state or county's Clerk of Courts office cannot provide any real help since any help could constitute legal advice, it can provide forms and other factual details and instructions for your time in court. Remember that no office staff can help you complete forms, so you are solely responsible from when the packet is in your hands to when the judge makes a decision.

2. Seek free or low-cost legal assistance options

Even if financial factors lead you to choose self-representation, free and low-cost services and resources exist for those who cannot afford a lawyer but still want legal guidance. Professionals like mediators, arbitrators, and divorce coaches often offer low-cost services to help people navigate issues outside of court and reduce or eliminate the need to engage in litigation.

In addition to in-person options, many online resources can connect people to free or affordable legal options. Some online services can help people navigate divorce, from completing paperwork to preparing evidence, at a reduced cost. Legal aid offices in each state can connect PSLs to other forms of free assistance. In addition to resources for free legal help offered by the ABA, the Pro Bono Net (PBN) organization's LawHelp.org helps people across the country find help in their state and access legal help guides.

Two men shaking hands

3. Get unbundled services from an attorney

While people may think they're left to fend for themselves by choosing self-representation, it's critical to consider that hiring an attorney is not an all-or-nothing scenario. Even if full legal representation is out of reach, partial or unbundled services can often be affordable. For example, an attorney can represent someone in court, even if they do not fill out their paperwork. In contrast, some lawyers can assist with completing forms and reviewing information without representing the client in court.

If you decide to pursue unbundled legal services, take time to research your options and find the right family court lawyer for your situation. It may seem time-consuming to schedule an initial consultation with a lawyer to explain your situation, understand the next steps involved, and get an estimate for costs. The result of this effort, no matter how long it takes, can help you minimize costs and stress in what is usually an expensive and stressful process.

Regardless of whether you want or feel the need to represent yourself in family court, there are many resources and options to ensure your efforts are practical and come at little to no cost if you pursue supplemental services and support. If you choose pro se representation, ensure you put in the effort needed to thoroughly prepare for court, effectively protect your mental health, and persistently pursue the outcome that benefits your children.

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