Here at OnlyDads we are frequently asked for advice from Dads who are wanting to represent themselves at Court. Here, Simon Bethel sets out some basic considerations and a few pointers which we will use as a very useful bit of signposting. Thank you Simon!
Attending court can be a daunting experience, particularly when it seems like the boundaries for your future relationship with your children are on the line. Do not be afraid: the courts are used to people acting on their own behalf in family matters, and there are some simple things you can do to give yourself the best chance of a sensible outcome.
• If you have not been to this particular court before, check the address and directions at www.courtservice.gov.uk/HMCScourtfinder. Make sure you know your public transport route exactly, and how long it will take, or have planned where you’re going to park. Take a trip to the court a few days before your hearing to make sure you know your way around, and what to expect. Court buildings are public places and you can go in whenever they are open. The usher might be willing to show you a court room, if it is not being used.
• Think about taking a friend with you on the day. He or she may not be able to go into court, but it can be useful to have support while you wait. Choose your friend carefully: it is not sensible to take with you someone whose very presence will annoy your former partner, or who will unblinkingly support you no matter what happens. Take someone whose opinion you trust, who can provide an objective viewpoint in difficult circumstances.
• Dress appropriately. You don’t need to wear a suit or a ball-gown, but first impressions count, particularly where responsibility for children is the issue. You should dress as if you were going to a good restaurant.
• Make sure you have a decent meal before you go to court, and perhaps take something to eat and drink with you in case you have a long wait. Be aware however that you will not be allowed to take food or drink into the courtroom.
• If you have childcare issues, make sure these are sorted in advance. Court hearings do not always start or finish when they should, so make arrangements for children to be picked up from school and looked after in case you do not make it back in time. Do not bring your children to court unless you are specifically ordered to do so – judges hate it.
• Before you go to court, prepare a simple piece of paper to give to the judge: one side of A4 is fine. It should say what you want and why you want it. It should be headed with your name, the name of the other party and, if possible, the case number. If it can be typed, all the better, but neatly handwritten is fine. You should have at least three copies of this document: one for the judge, one for your former partner, and one for yourself.
• Take with you copies of everything you have received from the court, and any orders made previously.
• On the day, get there in good time. Tell the usher who you are and what time your case is listed. Ask how the lists are going that day: there may be a number of cases listed at the same time as yours, and if things are going slowly, you may not come before the judge until a couple of hours later that the specified time. Be prepared to wait. It may help to take something with you that might take your mind off the proceedings.
• If you are before a district judge, address him as “Sir” or her as “Madam”. If you are before a circuit judge, you should address him or her as “Your Honour”. Be polite and respectful to the judge and to your opponent, and never interrupt a judge when he or she is speaking.
• Remember that the court will make a decision based on the best interests of the children. If you can focus your arguments on what is best for the children, rather than what is best for you as a parent, or what is wrong with the other parent, you will find that the judge hears you more clearly.
There is a wealth of information available to help you prepare to represent yourself at a court hearing: sites such as www.courtservice.gov.uk and www.divorce.co.uk have helpful factsheets about what judges can and can’t do, and can give you ideas about how to put your case forward in the most effective way. Don’t count out the possibility of using a solicitor as a consultant, either: family lawyers are now quite used to giving people advice as and when required, rather than handling all aspects of a case from start to finish. A meeting with a specialist solicitor a couple of weeks before the court date to talk things through, and the ability to take that lawyer’s phone number to court for advice if needed on the day, can be a powerful tool both for confidence and for results, and needn’t cost the earth.
Associate and Collaborative Lawyer, Mills & Reeve LLP
Member of Resolution’s Children Committee
If you have represented yourself in Court – please do share the experiences; what worked (and didn’t work) for you will be helpful additions to this post. Many thanks.