Legally Brief: Pro Se Self Representation

Top Ten Courtroom Tips for Effective Pro Se Representation

These are helpful hints that don’t necessarily appear in a statute book or court order but involve issues that often cause serious problems in a family law case.

10. Respect your own protective order. Be consistent. If you want a domestic violence protective order, apply for it and report violations when they occur. If you don’t enforce the order, the judge may think that you don’t take it seriously, and that can badly damage your credibility in court.

9. Be honest about the domestic violence. Exaggerating, minimizing or concealing your experience will eventually cause you trouble. Work with your advocate and tell the total truth about your experience – no more, no less. Even if people disbelieve you, you will know you did your best.

8. Be smart and selective about your evidence. You have limited time in any hearing. Pick your best 2-3 witnesses and your best (small) selection of exhibits. Check out other parts of this blog about getting those into evidence correctly. Most importantly, focus your attention on issues that matter, such as your children’s unique personal needs, family violence, serious neglect, drug or alcohol addiction, mental health, criminal behavior, or other considerations. Don’t waste it on things the judge doesn’t want to hear, like who cheated on whom, and who cooks better meals!

7. Answer the judge’s question! People ignore this rule all the time. This is usually because they want to use the court’s question to supply a whole lot of other (unrelated) information about the other party. Don’t do that. Just answer the question.

6. Avoid emotional eruptions. This is not television. While the judge may understand strong emotions to an extent, they will quickly lose patience if you resort to sarcasm or crying every time you are asked to speak, and will have no patience whatsoever with your legal papers if they are chock full of angry outbursts in CAPITAL LETTERS … or excessive underlining … or bold typeface … or loads of exclamation points(!), or ALL OF THE ABOVE!!!!!! And show the same restraint when you communicate with the opposing party. Never forget that anything you write or say could be used against you in court.

5. Leave your kids out of the conflict. Nothing will get you into real trouble with the judge faster than a discovery that you have been discussing your family law case with the children. Don’t take the children to court-related appointments and hearings, do not discuss your legal concerns in a place where they can overhear you, and – above all else – do not discuss the case with them.

4. Start calling them “our children.” Many women are taught from childhood that mothers are the “real” caregivers for their children. Unfortunately, that message evaporates in family court. The judge cannot legally favor you just because “you’re the mom.” Learn to say “our children.” Judges are extremely sensitive to this issue. Don’t damage your own credibility because you have already privately decided that your former partner will no longer play any role in the children’s lives. It is not your decision!

3. Stay on top of your case. Many domestic violence survivors really struggle to focus on their family law cases because of past trauma. Some ignore letters and phone calls from their abuser’s lawyers, while others perhaps don’t read the judge’s orders carefully or allow enough time to prepare for trial. This is called avoidance, and it will ruin your case. Hiding won’t help. You must politely and efficiently answer communications from an opposing attorney, obey the judge’s instructions, meet all of the required deadlines, and appear in court when directed.

2. Try not to panic. Panic hinders your ability to think clearly and affects your memory. It can also distract your attention from what people (such as the judge) are saying to you. But you can overcome panic in a couple of ways.

– First, be organized. Keep a “to-do” list (e.g. witnesses and exhibits), and a daily journal of deadlines and events that occur in your case. Outline the questions you intend to ask of witnesses when they appear in court or the points you would like to make. These preparations will not guarantee “ultimate victory.” But you will feel a lot smarter and more confident when you finally appear in court.

– Second, keep some perspective. Of course, your case is important, and you should take it seriously. But the outcome will not cement your existence. Your children will grow up. If you try your best and keep treating them with kindness and care, they will not forget it.

1. Trust yourself. If you are like many DV survivors, your abuser probably spent a lot of time telling you that you are not clever or resourceful enough to make it on your own. They are wrong. But it will take time for you to believe that. So be patient with yourself. Stop thinking “I can’t do this by myself!” That’s your abuser talking, and it’s not even true. If you are reading this, you have already begun to understand that you may have to depend on yourself more than anyone else. Your confidence will only grow.

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