Occasionally I have the opportunity to sit in Family Court courtrooms on “Pro Se" Day to observe how people handle their cases when they represent themselves. “Pro Se" means you represent yourself. One is not entitled to court appointed counsel in domestic/family law cases. And oftentimes, due to certain circumstances, one simply cannot afford to hire an attorney. In Mecklenburg County we are fortunate enough to have a Self Serve Center that is located in the Courthouse where persons can obtain information for filing claims for an uncontested divorce, child support and child custody matters. The Self Serve Center cannot offer legal advice. The Center also maintans a list of attorneys that offer Unbundled Services for a flat rate to handle certain court appearances or for the preparation of paperwork for claims and causes of action where there are no form available at the Self Serve Center.
The Mecklenburg County Bar also has a Lawyer Referral Service, where attorneys on the list agree to offer a thirty minute consultation for a nominal fee. Most attorneys on the list will offer unbundled services and some offer a discounted hourly rate or retainer. The McDowell Street Center for Family Law is a non profit organization that offers representation for child support and child custody cases on a sliding scale.
But if you find yourself in a situation where you cannot hire an attorney to go to court for you, I offer the following five suggestions that will help you obtain positive results in your case.
First, at a minimum, see an attorney to get a consultation to address the issues and procedures in your case. Your local county Bar may have a Lawyer Referral Servie or a Pro Bono program where one can obtain a low cost consultation. If your county has a Family Court office, you can obtain information about the general court procedures, but you will not be able to obtain legal advice.
Second, make sure you document serving documents to the opposing party. Filing the document is not enough. Oftentimes I see someone who is forced to come back to court on multiple occasions because the opposing party had not been properly served or there is no proof of service in the court file. It creates more time off of work and other concerns regarding adequate notice to the other party. Send documents certified mail or at a minimum with a delivery confirmation required.
Third, if you are handling a child support or child custody trial on your own, make sure you follow the Local Rules. In most jurisdictions the Local Rules are available online. Or you can get a copy from Family Court. Just because you represent your self, you are bound by the Local Rules in your jurisdiction. This is particularly important when there are rules and deadlines to exchange certain financial documents.
Fourth, if you have witnesses, make sure they are present! I have seen pro se litigants burned by not having the witnesses they needed to be present. It may require you issuing subpoenas, which you can do on your own. The forms are available in North Carolina at www.nccourts.org and clicking on Judicial Forms and then searching for subpoenas. You must make sure a subpoeana is properly served, which is most commonly done by certified mail with a return receipt. If you have to issue a subpoena, you must do so in a timely manner. If you are presenting a child custody case, you should have practical documents and copies available of school records, pictures of your home, etc. for the Court and the opposing party and enter them into evidence at the appropriate time. You must also enter documents into evidence in the correct way. This is another reason why it is important to try to consult with an attorney. Or if you have the time, observe court proceedings.
Finally, be respectful of court protocol. Always address the Judge as “Your Honor". Be respectful of the court staff at all times. Understand that you cannot communicate with the Judge about your case, ex parte, (without the other party being present). Don’t send letters to the Judge’s Clerk about your case without carbon copying the opposing party. The worse thing you can do is assume the Judge’s Clerk will help you prepare your case and bombard them with emails or letters. They cannot and will not help you prepare your case, as that is not their purpose.
So if you are in a position where you must represent yourself, take the time and attention to prepare your case. Plan ahead so you are not surprised by deadlines or the Local Rules of your jurisdiction. Take your case seriously because you do want to be in a position where it does not go well and you then need an attorney to fix what went wrong!! Some attorneys will give you an hour of time for a consultation to assist, from a distance, in helping you with tips to prepare your case. If you are able to find an attorney that will do that, then take advantage of that type of assistance.
Of course, treat your case like it is the most important case in the world and by taking that approach, you are more likely to get positive results.
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Family Law Attorney