Do I Need a Lawyer to Represent Me in a Family Law Matter?

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Explore:  Child Custody Divorce

Judicial 3d gavel and piggy bankFew people, who are headed for divorce or custody litigation, can afford to spend substantial amounts of money on a family law attorney. Frequently, clients consider whether they can or should represent themselves in their divorce litigation or family law matter. This decision is difficult. For anyone considering self-representation, several important issues should be considered.

Is this the first time you are going before the court on these issues?

If at all possible, a litigant should make every effort to have representation for an initial hearing on any matter which addresses custody, parenting time with a child or important financial issues. It is also very important to have representation if you are accused of committing domestic violence. Domestic violence orders in some states are permanent orders. Once a court order is entered as to custody, parenting time or financial terms it can be very difficult to persuade a court in the future to modify the existing court order or to otherwise change the status quo. In fact, frequently a showing of a substantial change in circumstances must be made before modification of a court order is permitted.

If you do choose to go to court on your own and you are unhappy with the result, you can retain an attorney after the fact and try and get the court to reconsider its decision. This strategy is risky. An application to reconsider must be filed soon after the court renders its decision and the standards for reconsideration are narrow. A motion to reconsider is most often not an opportunity to raise new issues or make new legal arguments on a matter which has already been heard by the court. An unfavorable decision can also be appealed. However, appellate courts move very slowly and appeals are expensive.

What relief are you seeking from the court?

In some circumstances, it does make economic sense for a party to represent him or herself. In circumstances where the court has already rendered a final decision and a client is seeking to enforce that order, it may be appropriate for that client to appear in court as a self-represented party, especially when more than one enforcement application is necessary. However, some self-represented litigants sometimes feel that they are going around in circles with the court since at times they are forced to file and re-file enforcement applications. The process may be frustrating for those not familiar with the system.

How well can you advocate on your own behalf?

It is important to know yourself and to know whether you be effective when advocating for yourself. Courts may send cases with self-represented parties to mediation on the day of the court hearing. A self-represented party may not understand the procedures and may be persuaded to enter into an agreement, which they may later regret. Also, the success or failure of any application is based on the ability of the litigant to explain their legal position and to tell his or her story to the court. Some litigants are much better than other litigants at communicating with the court.

In the end, the decision whether or not to represent yourself in court is a difficult decision. Courts are respectful to self-represented parties and courts give self-represented parties a fair opportunity to represent themselves. However, a court will not give a self-represented litigant a “pass” if he/she does not know the caselaw that governs their case. Ultimately, it can be difficult to modify or correct an unfavorable order.