Heather Mills chose to represent herself in court when the financial issues were being determined in her divorce from Sir Paul McCartney. That was a brave decision. She undoubtedly made savings on what would have been the fees charged by solicitors and barristers. But is it a good idea to go it alone when it comes to court hearings? Or should you take legal advice?
What you have to keep in mind is that lawyers who specialise in family cases are experts both in the law itself and in how to present their arguments on behalf of their clients to best advantage. If you decide to be your own advocate, you may well find that your partner has engaged experts like that, while you are an amateur in their field.
Good judges are sympathetic and helpful to people who are called ‘litigants in person’. You should also be treated with courtesy by lawyers on the other side. You yourself should be polite to everyone; it never helps to become emotional or lose your temper, although you can be hugely tempted to do either or both in a situation where the outcome matters so much to you.
Not everyone can afford a lawyer, of course, and you may have no alternative but to appear in person, since it is difficult to obtain public funding nowadays. In the past, legal aid, as it was known, was available on a more generous basis.
It was always necessary, however, to remember that the money granted for lawyers’ fees would have to be paid off eventually from any assets you were able to recover as a result of the litigation. At one time this was an interest-free loan but interest must now be added to the final bill.
So, if you have to fight your own case, here are a few tips.
First: think hard about how you should present it. Make a list of the points you want to make, so that you have them clearly in mind before the hearing.
Second: you will need to present certain documents to the court; copies of bank statements, mortgage statements, valuations of property, your estimated future outgoings and income, for example. You should have three copies of each document, one for yourself, one for the judge and one for the other side.
It will be of enormous assistance to yourself and the judge if you make three bundles of the documents you need, identically page numbered and with a list of the contents of the bundles, with page numbers, on the first page.
Third: never make allegations about the bad behaviour of your spouse in a financial hearing. No judge will pay any
attention to them, since they are almost invariably irrelevant in the context of a financial dispute. The only exception would be if the bad conduct related to some financial dealings designed to conceal the real extent of your spouse’s wealth or income. And you would need evidence of that.
Fourth: make sure you don’t interrupt when evidence is being given which you don’t agree with. Don’t make faces or any kind of noise. The judge will give you an opportunity to comment on what has been said when the evidence is concluded.
Fifth: when your turn to cross examine comes, you should already have prepared a list of the questions you want to ask. Ask them politely. The aggressive lawyers you see in the cinema or on tv might have a place in the criminal court but most certainly would not be welcomed by a family judge.
If you follow this advice, representing yourself could be a lot less stressful.