Litigants involved in family court proceedings need all the help they can get, especially if they are one of the many who are no longer able to obtain legal representation following the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters. Accordingly, and with no disrespect intended to anyone, I thought I would write a short post setting out some very basic advice for litigants. Most, if not all, of this has no doubt been mentioned here before, but even if it has, it bears repeating.
As indicated, this post is primarily for litigants in person, but (save, in particular, for the first point below) much of what I am about to say will also be useful for litigants with legal representation.
My first point is: Find out at least the basic law relating to the case.
This may sound obvious, but what I want to emphasise is the need to use a reputable source, to ensure that you get the best advice available. So don’t, for example, follow the advice of your friends, however well-meaning it may be. Obviously, the internet is the primary source of information for most people these days, but an awful lot of that information is incorrect. Accordingly, when researching on the internet, you should use official or reputable sites, such as GOV.UK, Citizens Advice, and Families Need Fathers, rather than sites where non-experts express their opinions. This blog is also an excellent source of advice on a huge number of family law-related topics – use the ‘Where To Begin’ section at the top of the front page, browse the categories on the right-hand side of the posts, or simply use the search box. Knowing some of the basics, such as that the needs of the parties are likely to be the most important issue in financial remedies cases, and that the welfare of child is paramount in children cases, can go a long way to putting a litigant on the right course.
My next point is: Respect the court, in all your dealings with it.
So don’t write to the court unless absolutely necessary (e.g. to file a document), and definitely do not bombard the court with correspondence. It also doesn’t do any harm to dress smartly when you attend court – so don’t turn up at court wearing jeans and a T-shirt, unless that really is all you have to wear. Use the correct mode of address when speaking to a judge or magistrate (‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ is fine for magistrates and district judges, ‘Your Honour’ for circuit judges and ‘My Lord’ or ‘My Lady’ for judges of higher courts). And lastly, don’t lose your temper in court, even if things are not going the way you want them to.
Along similar lines: Get to court hearings in plenty of time.
If you are unavoidably delayed, or are unable to attend, inform the court as soon as possible, although you will need a good reason for non-attendance, such as a serious medical condition, backed up by a medical certificate. Note that if you fail to attend a hearing without a good reason then the court may proceed with the case in your absence. It may also order you to pay the costs of any wasted hearings.
Next, obey the requirements of the court (and any applicable rules).
For example, do your best to ensure that documents are filed within the time limit set by the court or the rules. Not doing so will obviously delay the case, and may lead to you being ordered to pay the other party’s costs. If you can’t comply with the time limit, for example because a third party has not yet provided you with a document or some information you need, then request a time extension from the court.
Finally: Be prepared to negotiate.
The court will expect you to make every reasonable effort to settle the matter, rather than rely upon the court to make a decision. This is not just to save the court work – it will also save you a lot of time, stress and expense. It may well also result in a settlement that is preferable to something imposed upon you by the court. I recall often when dealing with litigants in person they weren’t prepared to negotiate, preferring to have their ‘day in court’. Such an attitude will not go down well with most judges. If you are not happy with negotiating with the other party or their solicitor direct, then consider mediation, whereby the mediator acts as an intermediary.
OK, I’ll leave it there. I apologise if the above was all too basic for you, but in the course of my career I came across many litigants who failed to follow one or more of these basic guidelines. Hopefully, therefore, some of you may have found it beneficial.