TV dramas can make representing yourself in court look straightforward, even glamorous. However, the reality is that managing court and family law proceedings on your own is stressful, complex, and often confusing. Managing Director Rita Gupta examines why the DIY option for your day in court could cost you dearly both financially and in terms of your mental health.
Representing yourself in court is a growing trend. Fuelled by the end of legal aid for most family cases back in 2013, more and more people are seeking to represent themselves in court. According to a new survey, the number of people taking little or no legal advice, and representing themselves in court rose from 37% to a staggering 57% over the last five years.
As a family lawyer firm, we do understand how tempting it is to consider the ‘do it yourself’ approach to divorce or family law matters to reduce legal costs. However, we are also aware of the many pitfalls, not least of which is the impact it may have on your mental health and future wellbeing, and the stress to your family.
“DIY” court representation or not? Five key points to think about
The decision to divorce is a hard one, and usually comes after much thinking and soul-searching, especially if children are involved. The same applies to other family law issues, such as child arrangements.
So, here are five key points to consider if you’re thinking about self-representation in court and within proceedings:
Have you got the time?
Modern life is busy and the sheer amount of administration involved in a divorce or other family matter can be hard to fit in around your other commitments. First, there is the quite considerable amount of work required to prepare the paperwork for your case. Then as a non-legal person, you’ll need time to learn the procedures and processes of how a court works. If you live a busy lifestyle, preparing for your day (or longer) in court could consume your every spare waking hour.
Can you cope with lifestyle changes and court at the same time?
Getting divorced involves living as a single person and/or parent long before the divorce case is concluded. There are new living arrangements to be made, financial logistics to sort out, and children to look after at a stressful time in their lives, often whilst juggling work commitments too. You’ll need to allocate time for court preparation, your work, and family life. You also need to consider how undertaking any family law court case yourself might affect future relations with your ex and your children in the future.
Do you really need the stress?
As lawyers, we spend our lives preparing and appearing in court, but we are never complacent. A courtroom can be a daunting workplace even for an experienced lawyer when faced with a judge and a formidable legal team representing the other party. The stress of this for a person facing court proceedings for the first time, especially with so much at stake, should not be underestimated. A divorce is the start of a whole new chapter on your life and that of your family. You don’t want to start that new chapter with an accumulated burden of stress and worry.
Are you saving money or potentially losing out?
The costs of expert legal advice and representation may look a lot when viewed in isolation. However, any mistakes you may through your own inexperience or misunderstanding can be very costly to sort out, or result in an unfair settlement that has far-reaching consequences. Taking legal advice early can ensure you fully understand what is involved, what you may (or may not) expect from a financial settlement, or how child arrangements would work after your divorce. Also the unravelling of errors can be costly if you end up having to go to a lawyer anyway.
Have you considered a different approach?
It is all too easy to focus solely on divorce through the courts as the only option if your relationship breaks down. Expert legal advice can offer you a unique, pragmatic perspective on your situation, which may not have to result in court action.
As Juliet Harvey, National Chair of Resolution says:
“People representing themselves in court (are) often reaching outcomes that are far from amicable … As well as driving up conflict, this can be damaging to the wellbeing of everyone involved, especially children. We know that early professional advice… helps those facing separation make the most informed decisions for them and their families.”
- You might be able to resolve your issues through mediation or using collaborative law, avoiding the need for court proceedings
- You may be able to settle issues such as child arrangements between yourselves and enter into a Child Arrangements Agreement, or if proceedings have already been issued, a Consent Order.
- You can also ask a solicitor or family lawyer to guide you on parts of the case you need help with, and do the rest yourself. This can involve obtaining advice on the general terms of the legal issue, drafting of certain documents including the divorce petition, statements and a court note.
- Some documents are more difficult than others. For example, drafting a financial consent order is complex. Legal advice should always be taken before signing either one you have drafted, or one presented to you by the other party.
- You may not want to wait for a court hearing, which may take some time given the current backlog of cases.
- You may also not necessarily get to physically visit a court, as the hearing may be conducted virtually. Your family lawyer can join the hearing online to provide you with professional and personal support.
Where to start if your relationship has irrevocably broken down
The earlier you seek professional advice for your divorce or family law issue, the better understanding you’ll have of the options and legal avenues available. You might be tempted by a “free 30 minute” appointment from a family law firm online, and it’s true we used to offer these in the past. However, we soon found that 30 minutes was simply not enough time for a proper discussion.
So, we now offer eligible clients a 1-hour initial consultation with 30 minutes included free. You will receive relevant advice based on a full discussion, not a snapshot chat. It’s important to remember too that this is the start of a major shift in your life, and time and money invested now will inevitably reap dividends.
If by the end of your initial consultation you want to instruct us to help you with your divorce or other family law issue, then we can move forward swiftly. If you want to take time to think everything over, or discuss it with friends or family, that’s also fine - any decision involving families shouldn’t be rushed.
What is best for you?
As we noted before, divorce is not the end of the road, it’s just the start of a new one. You need to emerge from divorce ready to take on and embrace your new life, not be exhausted and mentally drained from the strain of self-representation, or nursing the hurt of what feels an unfair hearing or judgment.
We can help you to achieve the best possible outcome that’s right for you, and your future wellbeing. Booking your initial appointment with LGFL is the first step towards that outcome.
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