Make sure your applcation for relief says what you really want to achieve.
The majority of pro se complaints in non divorce actions fail to clearly identify the relief sought. As a consequence hearing officers,who initially hear these applications, fail to consider or acknowledge claims ostensibly brought by the moving party. Oftentimes, the litigant blames that the hearing officer for not considering a claim. To remedy this problem, the pro se party must clearly articulate and identify the claim for relief sought. Clear and precise language must be used. Accurate spelling of terms would be helpful. Hearing officers and Judges do not administer legal advice. Therefore, you can not expect the Court to serve as your advocate. As a suggestion, therefore, if you elect to proceed alone without counsel, at a minimum consult with an attorney beforehand so you are better prepared to identify and articulate the relevant legal issues.
Meeting with the Child Support Hearing Officer
A hearing before a hearing officer may be an intimidating experience, especially if one is not familiar with the Court system. Therefore, preparation is a must not only to reduce your anxiety but to achieve the sought after results. Therefore, familiarize yourself with the procedures to be followed at the hearing as well as the legal issues that may be considered by the hearing officer. Also, be aware, although hearing officers are not judges, they are trained and very familiar with the law that applies to the issues that are generally brought before them. For example if the issues being brought involve custody, child support and parenting time, familiarize yourself with the terms such as sole custody, joint legal custody, primary residential parent and parent of the alternate or secondary parent. Also, review the child support guidelines and think in advance what sort of parenting plan you believe would be in the child's best interest. In other words, preparation produces results.
What to say at the hearing.
First, do not become tongue tied. Second, having prepared yourself, set forth your position logically and in the order of the relief sought in your application. You do not want to miss an issue. Third, do not be argumentative or interrupt the other party. The hearing officer will give each party ample opportunity to set forth their position. At the conclusion of the testimony of the parties, which incidentally, is not under oath ( if the matter is sent to the judge, then all testimony is sworn testimony), the hearing officer in the presence of the parties, will prepare a proposed form of Order for the parties to sign. This order will reflect the consent of the parties and is known as a Consent Order. Not all proceedings end with a consent order. Parties reserve the right to disagree and have their issues presented to a family part Superior Court judge, usually the same day. The parties at that time will be sworn and the Court will hear testimony regarding the contested issues.
What to expect when you appeal and appear before the Judge.
Generally, do not expect a whole lot in an appeal from the recommendation or finding of the hearing officer. Unless the court were to find that evidence had not been presented to the hearing officer, and the judge deems the evidence relevant, judges generally defer to the recommendation(s) of the hearing officer. This is often very frustrating for the pro se litigant who often do not have the experience to make the argument for the Judge to consider relevant evidence that had been omitted or overlooked by the hearing officer. Such are the frustrations in representing one self in these proceedings. Therefore, to minimize a poor outcome prepare the facts, understand the relevant law, and if at all possible consult with an attorney in advance.
When to testify - When to ask questions.
Once the hearing commences before the Judge or hearing officer, court rules establish the order of testimony. The plaintiff, petitioner or moving party ( the designation depends on the jurisdiction ) opens with his/her testimony. If assisted by counsel, facts are elicited through questions which make up direct examination. If unassisted by counsel, the judge asks the party to thoroughly explain the relief being sought. Upon conclusion of direct testimony, the moving party may be asked questions by the opposing party. This is cross-examination. This is the opportunity for the opposing party to challenge the direct testimony. Questions must relate to testimony adduced in direct examination. This requires forethought. In other words, cross- examination is not the time for testimony. It is the time for questions in the form of a question designed to elicit a sought after response.
Know when to stop!
Recently I was waiting my turn to have my client's case heard, when I had the opportunity to observe two unrepresented parties argue their domestic violence case before the trial judge. (yes, these cases are open to the public). After having heard the testimony, the court ruled against the alleged victim dismissing the temporary order of protection. However, the victorious party, the alleged assailant, rather than taking his victory in hand and politely exiting the court room with his dignity in tact, decided to engage the court and other party in an indecorous rant that, but for the prompt intervention of the court officers, the "victor", most probably, would have found himself in contempt of court or worse. Therefore, this cautionary tale highlights that a party must, in addition to knowing the facts and applicable law, is best served when appropriate behavior assures that a legal "win"is not quickly reduced to a legal disaster and a maybe a day or two in the county lock-up.