Written by Lucy Reed
Many people have never set foot inside a court building and wouldn’t dream of doing so without a lawyer to guide them through the process. It’s a common misconception that you have to have a lawyer in order to go to court, but that has never been true. Everyone is entitled to use the legal system whether or not they have a lawyer, although there are good reasons why most people would prefer not to. For most people who keep their noses clean and don’t end up in the criminal courts, the only time they are likely to have to go to court is on a family matter.
However, more so than ever before people are having to go DIY on family court cases. It’s nothing new that a lawyer has often been financially out of reach even for those in employment, but for those on a very low income there has been a safety net in the form of legal aid to pay for legal advice and representation. From April this year (2013) though, legal aid for many family cases is being withdrawn, meaning that there will be more people doing it without lawyers than ever before.
If you find yourself having to deal with a family court case and you don’t have a lawyer there are lots of resources available to help you work out what on earth you need to do. It’s important to be selective about the sources you use on the internet – not all are reliable, but there are many very good resources which are either completely free or reasonably priced. Here are just a few sources of information that may be helpful.
Family Courts without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person is available in print or kindle versions and has an accompanying website which includes a list of resources.
On the Justice website where you can find court forms for download, the Family Procedure Rules and Practice Directions. These are the rules that tell the judge and the people involved in a court case how the court process should work, what form to use etc.
National Family Mediation - couples are increasingly expected to have thought about if not tried mediation before going to court and you can find out about the process here. It won’t be suitable or effective for every case but it is definitely worth considering – if it works it is cheaper and more painless than court.
The Resolution website has some useful information about the options for separating couples.
There are a number of lawyers who write blogs about family law, such as solicitor Marilyn Stowe and Lucy Reed who blogs as familoo at Pink Tape. Marilyn has recently published a book Divorce and Splitting Up – Advice from a Top Divorce Lawyer which is available for 99p on amazon.
Also, the recently launched Sorting out Separation guide is a useful way to find other resources that are suited to your particular circumstances
The Money Advice Service has a range of tools to help you work through the financial implications of divorce or separation and the Direct.gov.uk and HM Customs & Revenue websites can be helpful in working out how your benefits might be affected.
Internet forums and groups can be a useful source of moral support, but beware of treating guidance on threads as valid legal advice – people sometimes do give spectacularly bad advice!
A little help
Do consider trying to find a way to pay for a little legal advice to set you on the right track – shop around for solicitors who specialize in family law and who will offer flexible pricing structures. Many will now offer capped or fixed fees rather than hourly rates that leave you constantly worrying how much each telephone call will end up costing, and some will be happy to help you at certain stages of a case rather than expecting to conduct the case from start to finish. Some cases can be more cost effectively dealt with by instructing a barrister directly rather than both a solicitor and a barrister, so have a think about whether or not that would suit you.
It’s still both stressful and daunting to deal with family court process without a lawyer but you don’t need to do it entirely alone. At court, you are entitled to the support of a “Mckenzie friend”. A Mckenzie friend is usually not allowed to speak for you, but is allowed to sit next to you during the hearing and offer quiet support or prompting, or to take notes. You can find out more about a Mckenzie friend by reading the court guidance on it. There are increasing numbers of people who will offer you “mckenzie friend services” for a fee – you don’t need to pay a fee. Take a sensible friend who will keep calm and who will help you keep your cool.
If you are a litigant in person you will find that the judge will do his / her best to help you through the process. If you don’t understand something, just say so. It’s far better to do that than to stay silent and misunderstand.
Lucy Reed is a family barrister and mediator at St John’s Chambers. She is author of family law blog Pink Tape and of Family Courts Without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person.