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Attending court on my own – what do I do?

Today we are looking at how to help those representing themselves in court proceedings. As members of Resolution we take an amicable and non-confrontational approach and try to keep families out of litigation if at all possible. However, for some families, turning to the court is the only way to make real progress on certain issues, particularly where out-of-court dispute resolution options have been tried unsuccessfully.

Moving towards court proceedings does not have to mean all-out battle with your former partner. It is entirely possible to conduct court proceedings in a measured, constructive and non-combative manner, and that is what we try to do at all times.

We work flexibly with our clients and this means that on occasion, they may choose to represent themselves at a particular hearing. More often, we are faced with the other parent or spouse  representing themselves and struggling to understand what it is they need to do and when. Whilst we cannot offer advice to the other parent or spouse, a few top tips will hopefully help everyone to move toward a dignified and constructive outcome.

The focus of this blog is to offer guidance to those representing themselves (referred to as a “litigant in person” or sometimes “self-represented party”) in children proceedings at the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (“FHDRA”).

It is important for both parents to prepare fully for the FHDRA. This means taking practical steps as well as legal ones. Practical tips are:-

•    The FHDRA is usually listed in the morning (10am) or the afternoon (2pm). You should aim to arrive at court at least an hour before, whether or not you have been ordered to do so. Check the notice of hearing to ensure you know where you are going and when you need to be there.

•    Do not be alarmed if you arrive at the court building and need to go through airport-like security. There is usually a security section and a reception area. Make sure you have your Case Number (appearing in the top right of any court documents you have) with you and speak to reception to ask where to wait.

•    Although some Case Numbers may refer to a particular location, central courts cover a number of hearing centres. For example, a Milton Keynes MK Case Number will not necessarily be heard in Milton Keynes. Check the location of the hearing centre, not just the Case Number.

•    There will be a “clerk” who will usually have a small desk with a list of cases on that particular floor. You should make yourself known to the clerk so that you are signed in as present.

•    When your former partner arrives, he/she may have legal representation. If they have legal representation, their solicitor or barrister may try to speak to you to narrow the issues. Remember they are there to advise your former partner and not you.

•    If your hearing is listed before the Magistrates (which is more usually the case for children matters), this means the Lay Justices will hear your case. They will have a legal adviser who directs them on the law, but, essentially, the bench is made up of up to three individuals who are volunteers from the community.

•    The Magistrates’ legal adviser may encourage you, and your former partner to speak to either an in-court mediator or a CAFCASS officer, if available on the day.

•    You should address the Magistrates as “Your Worships” and the legal adviser as either “Sir” or “Madam”.  If your hearing is being heard by a District Judge, you should address him/her as “Sir” or “Madam”.

•    The applicant speaks first and sets out who they are, who the children are, what their application is, and if an agreement cannot be reached that day, then what directions they would like the court to make so as to have sufficient evidence to determine the legal issues. Standard directions usually include a full statement from each party. A CAFCASS report may or may not be necessary.

•    The Justices will also hear from your former partner or his/her representative and will consider the issues. They will usually take legal advice from their legal adviser and may give various directions in the case.

•    Feel free to politely ask that a question is repeated or explained if it is unclear.

When presenting the case, bear in mind the following:

•     Be familiar with the paperwork! Read the application, the response, and any other papers in advance of the hearing as a reminder. Have copies with you to refer to.

•    Keep what you need to say simple. Short sentences, in straightforward language will enable the Magistrates to hear clearly.

•    Use ‘signposts’ when speaking. For example, if there are a number of reasons to maintain a particular position, use “There are three reasons why I think..” and then follow on with “the first reason is…” and then “the second reason is…”. This will keep the issues on track and allow the points to be heard.

•    Take a note of what the Magistrates say, or what your partner or his/her legal representative says. This is not as important as the parties are able to obtain a transcript of the hearing if required.

There is no need to be scared of a court process – the Magistrates are just people, as is a Judge. They are there to help move things forward and to get to a resolution. It is important to remember that making an application to court does not necessarily mean that the court will make the decision in the end. In the overwhelming majority of cases, an agreement is reached without a Judge imposing a decision.

If you’re thinking of applying to court and would like to make an appointment for a consultation with Gail, Sue, Tricia, Adam or Simon, please give us a call on 01223 443333.