Monday, October 31, 2005

Representing Yourself in Court

It seems I have daily inquiries from fathers (or their various supporters) regarding how to proceed legally. Many of these requests come from people who appear to have very little knowledge of the legal system and are lacking the funds necessary to employ legal counsel.

To be clear before I proceed with this post - throughout our entire ordeal we always had an attorney. We tried to be proactive and informed on the course of the law, precedents, expectations, etc... But WE ALWAYS RETAINED COUNSEL. Outside of absolute necessity, I would forgo whatever I had to in order to hire an attorney for such proceedings. They are simply too complicated and too slanted for me to have any faith in my own abilities. I say this even though several members of my immediate family are lawyers (though none practice family law) and could have been excellent resources not available to most Pro Se litigants.

UScourts.gov defines Pro Se as Representing oneself. Serving as one's own lawyer. (As an aside, the entire USCourts site can be an excellent source for understanding legal terminology).

That being said, there are fathers who are representing themselves. Angry Dad has been representing himself (another interesting aside - his ex-wife retained counsel even though she herself was an attorney though she has recently dismissed her lawyer and begun representing herself as well) and you can read about his case going back to August 2004. His case is in California so if that is your state of residence you might find his insights particularly helpful.

Again, however, I have to come back to the advice of retaining counsel if at all possible. I previously made this post Retaining Custody - Step One which discusses finding an appropriate attorney as well as contacting legal aid in your area. Legal aid will inevitably come with severe income restrictions so very few people will qualify but it is worth checking into if your finances are that tight. This post is related but not necessarily relevant to self representation: Retaining Custody - Step Two.

In the forum, I recommended to one poster to contact any local law schools and inquire if they offer a legal aid program or the like. My local law school offers a monthly session where one can ask (supervised) law students legal questions. This is not the same as being assisted by legal aid but it could serve as a good sounding board for a Pro Se litigant.

Many courts are becoming more sympathetic to the needs of those who have to represent themselves and are attempting to make themselves "friendlier." Arizona, for example, has recently approved some changes to make family courts easier to maneuver for those representing themselves (most of the changes will go into effect in January). For more information on the specific changes you can visit kvoa.com or view my post on the article on the October 2005 archive page. Notable from the article are the following: "With 70 percent to 80 percent of litigants in family court cases representing themselves, a prime focus in writing the new rules was to make them understandable to non-lawyers, Armstrong said. Another significant change also explicitly allows lawyers to represent people for just part of a case, Armstrong said. "Many lawyers will not do that now because they believe there are ethical constraints."

If you are considering representing yourself another good source may be your local courthouse. I would contact the clerk or a related office and inquire whether there are any resources available to Pro Se litigants.

At various points in this blog I have provided resources for Pro Se litigants. I will attempt here to reproduce those as well as add any I find to be of use. I cannot provide direct advice about representing yourself because I am not an attorney nor have I ever taken this route; but I will try to highlight some places one could go for direction.

If you are considering representing yourself one of the first things you should know is exactly how divorce and custody laws and statutes are written for your particular state. There are several ways to go about this. You can link to the website for your particular state and here you will probably be able to access the most complete information. I am not from Illinois (congrats to the Sox by the way) but to find Illinois custody law I typed Illinois gov into Google and the first site was the state of Illinois site. (State sites should end in .gov or .us). From here I clicked on the government link, then the legislature link (on the right), then on the Illinois Complied Statues link and finally I scrolled down and clicked on Chapter 750 Families (located under rights and remedies) to find a list including the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act and the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act amongst many others. You may have to do a bit of digging but the information should be there. In truth, it took me far longer to write all this up with the links than it took to find the information. I had never been on the Illinois site before but I had a general idea where to go which made the info fairly easy to locate. Also, on the main page there was a search box. I elected not to use this because I did not want to find things piecemeal but you could certainly give it a try and I assume most state sites include a search function.

There are probably easier ways to find variants of this information. I prefer the state sites because the laws can be viewed in their entirety (without someone taking the liberty to paraphrase for you) but admittedly sometimes the state sites can be hard to maneuver. Typing divorce laws by state into Google provided 8,610,000 results. I'll cover the first couple results here. Divorcecentral.com maintains a state list. However, while their information for Indiana took you directly to the correct page on the Indiana State site their information for Illinois was lacking. I would say use at your own risk and try to double check what you are seeing is both accurate and current. The Legal Information Institute (LII) provides an excellent list for state divorce laws.

Along with understanding the divorce statutes, if you have children you will need to understand child custody statutes as well. If you use the method of going through the state site you will easily be able to view both. While the LII does not have a custody list comparable to their divorce list, they certainly offer a lot of relevant information on child custody. The Children's Rights Council hosts a page covering Joint Custody and Shared Parenting Statutes which breaks down the legislation in each state and in many cases provides links to the related state page.

You might also want to look for a support groups or fathers advocacy group in your area. I post them on the blog when I am aware of them and you can always check your local paper. And don't be afraid to use the internet! Sometimes you may have to dig a little or refine your initial search but it can truly be an amazing source of information.

Before I delve into directed Pro Se resources I would like to talk about a couple of just generally good sites for fathers either with or without counsel. Previously I discussed two sites that offer free legal advice on general questions of divorce and custody. Read my original post and link to the sites here.

Another site I previously covered was Childcustody.net. This site is managed by an attorney licensed in Michigan which means while the advice will be credible it will only be directly applicable to Michigan residents. The site is expansive and truly a great resource.

I simply cannot say enough about the Separated Parenting Access & Resource Center (SPARC). Go there with a lot of time on your hands because the site is huge and it is all important, relevant, helpful information. SPARC should be one of your first stops on any divorce/custody question. They maintain a page for legal forms, a guide for evaluations, lists of resources by state and a bunch of other stuff like articles, message boards and chat rooms.

When we were going through our case I was extremely interested in child custody precedents. I would think this would be all the more relevant if representing yourself. LII can be a good resource for this but I always preferred lexisone. Lexisone does require registration but it is free to do so.

I have been cataloging sites that I feel to be helpful since the inception of this blog. I know it can be hard to look around on a blog but I assure you there is a lot of information on the archived pages.

Finally, go to your local library and look for books on divorce, custody, self representation, etc... The only cost you will incur through this might be late fees.

Okay, so on to resources specifically for Pro Se litigants:

American Pro Se Association: There doesn't appear to be much here unless you want to pay the $50 annual fee to be a "premium member." I tried to access a couple things but was restricted - never having been a premium member I couldn't even venture a guess if this is a worthwhile investment. Under the category Library it appears you can access some basic forms. A lot of the site was not yet operative and I couldn't access much formative regarding Family Law & Divorce without a membership.

The Pro Se Law Center has links to search for Pro Se programs as well as lists of court Pro Se services. I didn't find anything for my county but maybe you will have better luck.

PRO SE HANDBOOK - The Manual for the Litigant Filing Without Counsel. Though this was written for Idaho it may very well be a good general read to help one get familiar with court terminology and methods.

Nolawyer.com appears to exist primarily to get you to purchase something. There are a couple useful links and at least one free form that I came across. There is also a search function at the bottom of the page. The site also contains the WIZARDLAW COLLECTION OF PRO-SE LINKS. The first couple I clicked were dead links but a few were active and the list is fairly large so try at your risk.

Searching for Pro Se on Divorceinfo.com provides 155 results - most of which are categorized by state. When I clicked on the Minnesota results the only questions it answered were how hard it was to file for divorce, what paperwork needed to be filed and the cost of filing. This might be helpful to someone just initiating a divorce.

NYCourthelp.gov has a forms library that includes family law, divorce and civil forms.

The New Jersey judiciary maintains the site njcourtsonline.com which has specific resources and supports for Pro Se litigants. This is an excellent site if you are a New Jersey resident except very little of it deals with family law issues. There are two direct family links dealing with enforcement of an order in a family law case as well as a family part case information statement.

The Connecticut judiciary maintains a page for FAQ's on self representation.

NOLO also offers a How to Represent Yourself in Court FAQ. On the same page you can see other NOLO articles related to Pro Se litigants.

Colorado offers What You Need to Know About Representing Yourself in Court.

As do Maine, Utah, Vermont, Delaware, Wisconsin and DC in their respective forms.

What It Means To Represent Yourself In A Legal Matter is an article about self representation in Michigan.

California has SHARP (Self-Help Assistance and Referral Program) centers in Oroville and Chico in Butte County, and there are centers in Orland and Willows in Glenn County. The Tehama County SHARP center is in Red Bluff. SHARP provides self-represented litigants with assistance and instructional workshops in a variety of areas of law and helps them comply with the procedural processes of the court system. The SHARP center in Oroville is located in the old downtown courthouse, 1931 Arlin Rhine Drive. For more information, call 530-532-7015.

These were sites or programs that I had been emailed or had bookmarked. Surely there are more out there and I would be happy to post more. If you are aware of a helpful Pro Se program or resource please either email it to me or post it in the comments section.

UPDATE: I just learned MIsForMalevolent is also a father representing himself Pro Se. His case is based in New Jersey.

UPDATE 11/16/05: Larry Holland is a father going Pro Se in Michigan. His blog can be seen here. Also, link to my post Pro Se Divorce in Texas which includes a link to the Texas State Bar Association's Pro Se Handbook.

Update 12/5/05: Idaho Pro Se Representation

UPDATE 12/9/05: Additional info for going pro se in Vermont

UPDATE 2/7/06: Information about filing a complaint against the Friend of the Court (FOC) in Michigan.

UPDATE 3/8/06: Lawdragon: A site that allows evaluations be submitted of judges and lawyers.

UPDATE 3/27/06: Alabama Divorce, Custody & Support Info, Alaska

UPDATE 4/4/06: Arizona Divorce, Custody & Support Info

UPDATE 4/24/06: Uncontested Case for Divorce in California

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3 Comments:

Blogger MisAnDrope said...

This is an amazing resource you have posted. Thank you very much. I am linking it now. :)

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Tom g said...

I had no luck in the family courts here in DE until I hired a great attorney. There are many thing he knows that I did not. If you do not know what things to object to they will be allowed. Knowing what your doing command a lot respect from the judges too. It makes there jobs easier by skipping all the unrelated topics.
This Blog is a great resource for help on this topic. It inspired me to hire my attorney

1:49 AM  
Blogger Lary Holland said...

This is a great post that you put out there! I am a Dad of two wonderful kids and have had to represent myself. My sites, if you want to exchange blogrolls are:

www.laryholland.org
*blog involving my custody case and actions in GR*

360.yahoo.com/frcmichigan
*blog and other helpful information*

standuptoday.blogspot.com
*new blog that will be focusing on victim impact statements due to the conflict of interests with the "foc" and their many gross actions*

We have to stand up together or fall down one by one.

Lary Holland
backofthebus@sbcglobal.net

1:47 AM  

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