Being a Self-Repper - or 'How I stayed in Charge of my Own Proceedings in a Family Law Case and got Fairness in Court - Without Huge Legal Bills' by Linda Franklin
'He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,' a solicitor told me when I said I first planned to be an 'applicant in person' to the High Court in London to vary the terms of the current Order that held between my ex and myself. There had been a substantial change in circumstances that meant I felt the situation was unfair; as my ex didn't see it that way - we needed a higher, neutral power to decide exactly what was fair taking all the relevant factors into account.
Not surprisingly - because I didn't have much of a clue then about how the family court operates - I took the solicitor's word for it and didn't want to be a fool. So I did spend money I could ill afford on professional legal help. I wish I hadn't, now. When the budget I'd set soon ran out my solicitor said I should do it myself, being far more aware of the intricacies of the case and its history, also intelligent and articulate. I asked the advice of a barrister friend: 'Look - no-one is ever going to be as interested in your case as you are,' he said. 'Find your way around the court system, find out what you need to do, tell the truth and ask the judge for fairness.' Now I sincerely wish I'd done that before spending on legal bills that just got me to the point where I had to pick up the pieces on my own anyway.
You hear a lot of nonsense talked about divorce and family courts, because they're not open to the public, for obvious reasons of privacy and safety. So most of what you hear about are headline-making 'big money' cases (where resources are in excess of either parties' needs or 'reasonable requirements'; even taking into account their accustomed lifestyle); or partisan opinions from individuals who've gone through their own particular case - and which might not relate to yours at all. There is no 'one size fits all' solution in this country and each case is taken on its own merit according to laid down criteria - but which enables a judge to make his or her own considered judgement. But the aim of the court is to be fair and produce a fair outcome for all parties. If you keep yourself focussed on that, you'll find out what to do as you go along: an overview helps, but remember you don't have to know it all before you start.
With hindsight, the fee that was well worth paying was for an initial consultation with a top firm of matrimonial solicitors right at the beginning: they assessed my case and told me what it would entail. You can find out a lot by ringing around several specialist family law solicitors and telling them what you want to do and ask for their assessment of its viability in view of how judges are currently interpreting the law. If you like the way the firm comes across and you think they've 'got' you and your case straight away, you can ask for an initial paid consultation of an hour or two to see how they'd approach it and what they'd expect you to get out of it so you can decide whether to go ahead or not. Whether you proceed on your own or with them, now or later is up to you.
But - when you're ringing around - take notes from all of them. If you speak to enough people the basics of your case will come through - and everyone has a bit to add. One odd thing I found: the higher the ranking, reputation and price of the law firm, the more willing they are to share knowledge they have at their fingertips - and the more clear sighted they are. Some were extremely kind and helpful: one solicitor who's also a judge gave me almost an hour's worth of advice and support at no charge - and she did this out of out of sheer compassion, for she said her firm was far too expensive for me to even consider. Many dedicated and ethical lawyers do 'pro bono' work for the less fortunate: some work in Citizen's Advice Bureaux and I was to find there were excellent lawyers in the CAB at 'my' court itself.
Once you go ahead with your case, it's mostly form filling to start with. The court staff won't give legal advice, but will tell you what you need to do vis a vis the forms. Start with Her Majesty's Courts Service website (www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk - HMCS is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, whose remit is to deliver justice effectively and efficiently to the public: 'All citizens according to their differing needs are entitled to access to justice... Our aim is to ensure that access is provided as quickly as possible and at the lowest cost consistent with open justice and that citizens have greater confidence in, and respect for, the system of justice.' A purple box on the left hand home page opens a number of links - go to 'Information About' then Ancillary Relief/Financial Orders: Form D190 'I want to apply for a Financial Order' takes you through the whole process in four pages.
An excellent resource is the website of Manches Solicitors (www.manches.com) - go to Sectors, then Family and Private Client: the Guide to Making Financial Orders and all the information in that section puts you right up to date with current thinking about how the courts decide what's fair in an easy to assimilate way: solicitors go to this site for guidance. There are also useful lots of articles, judgements and their significance on the website www.familylawweek.co.uk. And The Law Society (www.lawsociety.org.uk) lets you download their 'Family Law Protocol' if you want to bone up on how the other side's solicitor (if there is one) should be acting.
There are three hearings: the First Appointment, the Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) and the Final Hearing. Not many people go through the whole three, preferring to settle before, but - if you do go through to what is often referred to as The Trial - the judge makes a final order. The judge will not be the same one who dealt with the FDR and both applicant and respondent can be cross examined. If you're doing it yourself that means you get to cross examine your ex - but only on things relevant to the case in hand.
There is a lot to do and a lot of information has to be given. If the other party has a solicitor, you have to deal with him or her - which can be intimidating. But whenever it got frightening, daunting or confusing I'd remind myself I'd done and was doing nothing wrong: I was simply asking the court for fairness and judges are used to dealing with lay folk. I kept in mind the kind and sensible voice of the solicitor/judge who'd helped me at the beginning and read the calm, clear Manches website.
And whenever I had to lodge documents at the court I tried to see the solicitors in the CAB there for more advice: I had to get there in the morning but could usually get an appointment in the afternoon: they were always top quality and supportive. And, while I waited, I listened to the stories of the other women who were waiting (often crying and always worried and upset) for the same help. We were different cultures and nationalities, but we were bonded as women looking for help with ex partners who could afford their own lawyers - and we gave each other heartfelt wishes of good luck. I asked for all the help I could get with the court staff - who were invariably kind and patient. In the end the court itself came to seem far less overwhelming: more a familiar place with friendly and helpful figures in it.
On the morning of the Final Hearing the security man wished me luck. What I got was a top judge who assimilated all the information, understood everything quickly, was patient, kept it informal but kept good order. And then, in his judgement which he gave at the end of the day, he gave a master-class in how the law should be applied in order to give a fair outcome. As I left the court, the security man took one look at me and knew his wishing me luck had worked. Do I think I was a fool? No, I think I was courageous and did the work. And do I think the law is an ass? No I don't.
Photograph couretsy of Tommy Candler