Despite the possibility of a complete lifestyle change, people show up to family courts across the U.S. without a lawyer all the time. Literally, all the time. Every hour of every weekday they represent themselves because they can’t hire a lawyer. Self-representation in family court is in fact normal.
Part of “normal” is domestic violence victims handling their own cases and getting restraining orders. On a normal day, courts that handle family law cases address domestic violence issues head on while attempting to provide a semblance of due process.
If you’re in a violent situation and need to represent yourself, your challenge is to get due process despite the world falling apart around you. One of the first steps in the process is to get a restraining order. Fortunately, courts are empowered to address this and other issues. Make that decision easy for them. Let’s take a look at some of the practical things you should consider when representing yourself in a domestic violence case.
Assure Jurisdiction is Proper
Jurisdiction refers to the authority of a court to hear a particular case. For instance, only a bankruptcy court can try a bankruptcy case. In most states, family courts hear domestic issues, like divorce, child custody, and so on. Not every state has a family court, but every state has a means for you to address family issues. Take some time to learn where family matters are handled in your county.
Know the Law and Resources
Unlike other types of courts, family courts are more likely to look deeply into a party’s personal situation and suggest resources for guidance or assistance. Resources might include domestic violence programs, assistance for self-representation, handbooks, divorce packets, and so on. Services and resources are also available through social service organizations. Domestic shelters, for instance, provides a content system for locating legal assistance services near you.
Gather Evidence of Abuse
Take a minute to write things down. In fact, be in constant evidence gathering mode if you can, particularly about any kind of abuse during the marriage. Collecting evidence in this way will help you present your case better in court. See this blog on Proving nonphysical abuse in court.
Keep notes about (1) potential witnesses; (2) times and dates an event or incident occurred; (3) location of incidents and events; (4) injuries; and (5) events that prompted a particular incident. Store this information in a safe place.
Talk to friends and family
Some of your friends and family may be witnesses to your injuries or the abuse. Talk to them. Ask them to testify on your behalf. Or get a subpoena (legal command) signed by a judge if they’re reluctant. If they don’t come to the hearing even then, request a postponement of the hearing.
Reporting injuries will further help you establish a record of abuse. So don’t delay seeing a doctor, and keep copies of the doctor’s report, medical bills, and medications. The court may require you to have certified copies of documents you collect, affidavits or other written evidence. Also keep police reports, and be prepared to file a subpoena if need be.
The following are some evidentiary items or reports commonly allowed: (1) medical and police reports; (2) injury pictures, preferably dated times and dates an event or incident occurred; (3) objects or pictures of objects that the abuser broke; (4) pictures of disarrayed home after the incident of abuse; (5) 911 recordings; (6) weapons or pictures of weapons that the abuser hurt you with; (7) a diary or journal of abuse record; and (8) pictures of threatening or abusing messages and emails
The court will review the evidence and arrive at a decision.
Prepare for Child Custody Issues
If children are a part of the equation, expect the court to rule on temporary custody and child visitation as part of any protection order. The judge will make these decisions in the best interest of the children. So prepare and plan your presentation and responses with this in mind and well ahead of time.
Monitor the Proceedings
Most courts have an online docket that shows records of your proceeding, including your case number, critical dates, and the motions filed. Find out where your case information will be published online and monitor your case regularly. Stay on top of the information posted in the docket to avoid unpleasant or shocking surprises.
While you’ve lived through abuse, you may not have gotten a chance to speak about the incidents to anyone. Telling your story in front of the judge in court may make you nervous, but it’s a necessary part of the proceedings.
So, make the job easy for the judge. Present your story in a clear, organized way. Before going to court, practice telling your story in front of a mirror or to a person you trust. Each time you tell it, you may remember new details that may be crucial to your case.
Things to Do to Prepare for Court Appearances
- Arrive early
- Make sure your witnesses are present and ready; give them a wake-up call if needed
- Have your evidence ready
- Inform the judge about the absence of subpoenaed witnesses/ documents
- Speak to the judge only; don’t address or argue with your opponent
- Address the judge as ‘Your Honor’
- Expect to spend the entire day in court
- Be safe and keep away from the abuser. The court staff may help you if you’re afraid for your safety
- Never answer a question before understanding it
- Be honest and speak the truth
- Don’t volunteer information; answer questions as briefly as possible
Once you get preliminary things, like the restraining order, out of the way, you can focus on doing the other work of litigation. And there are plenty other things. In a family court battle, you can lose or gain child custody, home ownership, alimony and so on, so do your homework. Self-representation should not be the reason you lose in family court.
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