APPEARING PRO SE IN DIVORCE COURT
For many Pro Se litigants filing for divorce may mean meeting in front of a Judge for a short hearing. Many cases do not require a court appearance or hearing, but just in case it is always wise to be prepared. The experience can be intimidating and a little overwhelming, but the information on the page will give you the guidance and confidence you need. When appearing in court, it is important to pay attention, be respectful and only speak when you are called to do so.
The Judge will call your name and you should respond "present" or "here" so the Judge knows you are present in the courtroom. The Judge may summon you forward. When directed by the judge, you should come forward to the podium or to one of the tables at the front of the courtroom as directed by the Judge or the courtroom deputy. You should remain standing until directed to take a seat, and do not approach the bench where the judge sits unless directed to do so. Your hearing may also be less formal in a meeting room around a table, in which these introductory instructions typically do not apply.
Courtroom and Hearing Behavior
Certain standards define acceptable courtroom behavior.
Conservative clothing is always appropriate. Shorts, T-shirts, low necklines and torn clothing are not appropriate. Suits and dresses, which attorneys wear, are very appropriate and recommended. A court is a formal place and a conservative and respectful appearance in dress and behavior will make a favorable impression.
Children should not be brought to court or hearing unless instructed to do so. Unless the Judge orders that children attend a hearing or a trial, parents should make arrangements for someone to take care of them.
Certain behaviors are not allowed because they are noisy, distracting or disrespectful. Chewing gum, eating, reading newspapers, sleeping, wearing a hat, listening to earphones, carrying a cell phone or pager (unless turned off) are all discouraged and often prohibited.
You should listen carefully, and always ask the Judge for permission to speak. You should always speak directly to the Judge. When speaking to the Judge, a person should begin, "Your Honor," and speak loudly and clearly, but do not shout. Only one person can speak at a time. A court reporter records everything said and can only record one speaker at a time.
It is a good idea to speak in the third person when referring to the other party or his or her attorney.
What the Family Law Court Clerk Can Do
Court employees must remain neutral in order to preserve the integrity and independence of the Court. While the court clerks are prohibited from giving legal advice, they may be able to answer some basic questions about where to file papers, the number of copies required, and dates for court appearances. The clerk's office employees may provide procedural advice because ether are responsible for facilitating your divorce. The clerk and the office staff may:
- Explain and answer questions about how the court works.
- Explain the requirements for a case considered by the court.
- Provide information from the case file.
- Make copies of court documents from the case file.
- Explain generally the different forms and what is required.
What the Family Law Court Clerk Cannot Do
By law, the Clerk's Office staff and other court employees are prohibited from giving legal advice or performing any legal services. A court employee can give assistance about procedures, but only lawyers can give clients legal advice. A party should consult with an attorney when unsure about what to do to protect his or her rights and interests. Only a lawyer can advise regarding your rights and responsibilities.
The clerk and the staff may not recommend a lawyer, but they can often provide the telephone number of a local lawyer referral service.
What the Pro Se Filer Must Consider and Do
The decision to go Pro Se in court is an important one, and making this decision means you assume the responsibilities you are undertaking. The following are the basic responsibilities of someone who file his or her own divorce. Pro se divorce filers must:
- Follow all the rules that apply to lawyers. If you do not follow the same rules that apply to lawyers, you will be subject to the same penalties as if a lawyer handled your case. For example, a failure to file required paperwork may result in your case being postponed or dismissed entirely. Court rules are consistent and the same for both lawyers and Pro Se filers.
- Understand the legal process. The legal process is complex and sometimes difficult to understand. Decisions made during the process could adversely affect the outcome of a case. There are law libraries that are available to the public. You can go into the law library and research issues you may not understand.
- Do your homework. Pro Se representation in a case will require completing the required divorce forms that include.
- Remain objective. It is very important that you remain objective when filing a pro se divorce. The more you have to lose the more emotional you may become and the more you may not be thinking as clearly to effectively to represent yourself.
- Be organized. The court has a very busy schedule and only a limited amount of time to hear cases and to accept the divorce paperwork.
- Maintain files. Make sure you keep a copy of all the divorce paperwork that you sign and file with the court.