The number of unrepresented people in family court who show up to try their own cases has risen dramatically over the last couple years. Most of this is because there are a lot of people who can’t afford the $2000 or $3000 (or more) it usually costs to have an attorney represent them. If you are stuck with this situation, what should you do?
Be aware that unless you are facing contempt, which comes with the potential for jail time, you are not entitled to appointed counsel. That means if you show up without a lawyer for a hearing in domestic court you are going to have to try your own case. So, be prepared. Unrepresented people are held to the same standard as an attorney and are expected to follow the rules of Court and of civil procedure. The technical aspects of this can create a minefield for the layperson. You may have your complaint dismissed on a technicality without ever being heard. You may have to reschedule a hearing because the documents you filed were written improperly. Or, you may not have a very good outcome because you failed to present critical evidence.
There are some things you can do to help yourself in this situation. First, read the law that applies to your particular problem. If its a custody case, read the statutes on child custody so you know what they say. Most of the relevant statutes for family court are found in Chapter 50 of the North Carolina General Statutes.
Second, there are several attorneys in Wake County, including me, who offer relatively inexpensive “self help” assistance. For the most part, this amounts to drafting complaints, answers and motions that can be filed with the court and will meet the legal requirements for your particular claim. It will go a long way to helping you avoid many of the potential technical pitfalls in handling your own case.
Third, spend some money and have a consult with an attorney. Ask them to explain how to approach your specific problem. It will give you some insight into what is important when you do walk into a courtroom and have to explain the situation to a judge.
Fourth, get organized and be prepared. If phone records or financial records will prove your claims or prove the other side’s claims to be untrue, you better have them with you in Court. I’ve listened to countless defendants complain that something the plaintiff said wasn’t true and that the bank records would prove it, but they didn’t have those records with them at the moment. Those folks were simply out of luck. The court hearing is your one chance to present your side. If you leave things at home that are important to presenting your side, then they might as well not exist because you won’t get a chance to come back next week with whatever it is you forgot.
Finally, some claims are easier than others to do yourself. Custody is usually less document-intensive than other issues and is simpler for a non-lawyer to present in Court. Financial claims like alimony and equitable distribution become increasingly complex and involve substantial financial documentation. They can be tough even for an experienced attorney to present in Court in an understandable way. Don’t do this unless you have absolutely no other choice.
My last word on the subject is: Don’t walk into court without a lawyer if at all possible, but if you don’t have any other choice but to try your own case take the time and spend a little money to educate yourself and remove as many hurdles to your success as you can. The few hundred dollars you spend to get pleadings and motions done correctly from the start will save you big problems down the road.