Written by Olivia Piercy

Partner at Bindmans LLP

Olivia advises on all aspects of family law, with particular expertise in cases with a cross border or international element. She is a domestic violence activist and campaigner for access to justice for all.

Navigating the Family Court without representation can feel daunting. This article aims to demystify the process and give you some useful pointers to help you to represent yourself at court.

Who’s who?

If you are representing yourself in court proceedings you are called a ‘litigant in person’. The litigants in a case are known as ‘the parties’.

The party who made the application to court is called ‘the applicant’ and the other party is called ‘the respondent’.

Representing yourself in the Family Court can feel overwhelming, especially when the case is about your children and it matters so much to you

Sometimes there is more than one respondent and it can get confusing when more than one person makes an application. You might find it easier to refer to yourself and the other party as ‘the father’ or ‘the mother’ or just by your actual names.

Your case may be heard by magistrates or by a judge. The court may appoint a Cafcass officer to investigate your case and report back to the court.

What to call the judge

If your case is heard by a district judge or by magistrates, call them ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.

If your case is heard by a judge with the title ‘His/Her Honour Judge X’, call them ‘Your Honour’.

If your case is heard by a judge with the title ‘Lord/Lady Justice X’, call them ‘Your Lordship/ Ladyship’.

Making an application

If you want to make an application to court, you need to use the correct court form for the application that you are making. You can ask your local family court which is the correct form to use. The most common forms are:

  • Form C100 – to make applications in relation to your children.
  • Form DIV1 – to apply for a divorce.
  • Form A – to start financial remedy proceedings in relation to divorce.
  • Form FL401 – to apply for protection from domestic abuse.

You can make your application by posting it or handing it in to the court. You may need to pay a fee so check with the court how much that will be. If you cannot afford to pay the court fee, you may be eligible for a fee remission, if you complete Form EX160. The court will ‘issue’ your application and will send a copy to you and a copy to the other party. If appropriate the court will arrange a court hearing.

TIPS

  • It is a good idea to read the guidance on the back ofcourt forms, which sets out how to complete the form.
  • You can find all of the court forms on the Form Finder page of the HMCTS website.
  • If you do not hear back from the court, telephone them to make sure they have received your application, as paperwork does sometimes go astray.
  • Provide the court with three copies of your application form and three copies of any other documents you file -one for you, one for the other party and one for the court file.
  • Read any paperwork you receive from the court very carefully.

Any documentation that you provide to the court will be sent to the other party. If you don’t want the other party to know your address, do not put it on the application form. Instead, include your address on a Form C8 and do not put it on any other documentation. The court will keep the Form C8 with your confidential address on the court file.

How to prepare for a court hearing

Letters from the court: carefully read all of the documents from the court and the other party as soon as you receive them. They may include important information such as the date and the venue for the next court hearing. They may also set out important directions including documents you need to provide by certain dates.

The bundle: at a court hearing, the judge and parties will usually have a file of the relevant documents, called the ‘bundle’. If the other party is represented, their solicitor will prepare a court bundle. They should agree the contents of the bundle with you in advance and they should also provide you with a copy of the bundle. If both parties are unrepresented, the court will prepare the bundle, but you should still bring all relevant documents to court with you.

Cafcass: a Cafcass officer may telephone you before the first court hearing to ask you if you have any safeguarding concerns about your child or the other parent. Try to be as helpful and honest as possible with the Cafcass officer.

Position statements: before each hearing, you should also prepare a position statement. This is different from a statement of evidence. A position statement includes a summary of what has happened so far and sets out your position for the hearing, including what you would like the court to order. Your position statement should be typed if possible. It should not be more than four A4 sides long. You should email it to the court and to the other party the day before the hearing. You should bring a few copies to court.

Special assistance at court: if you will need arrangements to be made due to a disability, or the assistance of an interpreter, make sure you contact the court well in advance to put in a request. If you are afraid of the other party, you can ask the court to find a separate waiting room for you and a separate entrance to the court. You may even be able to have a screen in the court room so you can’t see the other party, or to join the hearing via a video link. Ask the court how they can assist you. You should chase this up with them more than once to make sure they have put the special measures in place.

Representing yourself at the court hearing

There are different kinds of hearings depending on what application has been made and the stage of the proceedings.

Usually the first court hearing is used to see whether the parties can agree. If they can’t agree, the court will direct what evidence each party needs to provide so that the court has all the information it needs in order to make a decision. The following tips may be helpful whatever kind of court hearing it is:

  • You should get to court an hour before the hearing if possible.
  • If you are representing yourself you can bring a friendor family member with you. They are called a ‘McKenzie Friend’. Tell the court and the other party that you have brought a McKenzie Friend. Your McKenzie Friend cansit next to you, take notes and help you to organise your papers. They cannot speak on your behalf unless the court gives them permission.
  • When you arrive at court, check the notice board to see which court you are in. Find the court room and hand your position statement to the court clerk. Explain who you are and ask them to hand it to the judge or the magistrates so that they can read it be for the court
  • Sign in at the front desk. You may see that the other party has already signed in. They may wish to negotiate with you before the hearing. You can try to agree matters if you wish, but you don’t need to. It may be that some issues are agreed and others are not. Remember to give them a copy of your position statement as well.
  • When you are in the court room you should take a note of everything that the judge says. Check that the judge has had a chance to read your position statement. If not, give them another copy.
  • You may feel angry or upset in the court room. It’s OK to cry, but it’s important not to lose your temper with the judge or with the other party. If you do not feel you have had an opportunity to express yourself clearly, make sure the judge is aware that you still have more to say. It’s important to put all of your most important points in your position statement in case you get nervous in court and forget to say them.
  • After each hearing a court order will be drafted. If the other party is represented, their lawyer will prepare the order. If not, the court will prepare the order. Make sure that you have exchanged email addresses with the other party’s lawyer and with the judge’s clerk, so that you can check the order and so that you are copied into any correspondence with the court.
  • Make sure you know andthat you write down (1) when the next hearing is, (2) whether you have to file any documents and if so, by what dates, and (3) whether the other party has to file any documents and if so, by what dates.
  • Representing yourself in the Family Court can feel overwhelming, especially when the case is about your children and it matters so much to you. Court proceedings follow a process and are usually broken up into stages. So long as you have read everything from the court very carefully and youhave followed the directions that the court has given you, you can’t go too far wrong.

The most helpful thing you can do to make sure you are really prepared is to draft a position statement in advance of every hearing and bring along a lot of copies. Don’t be shy to ask your friends and family for support. It can be really hard to take in and remember everything that was said during a court hearing or during a negotiation with another party, so it can be a great help to have someone else there to take a note. If you don’t feel you have anyone to ask, you can contact the Support Through Court project. This is a charity which operate in many family courts around the country. They can often make someone available to support you at court and even during your court hearing.

Above all, remember that the Cafcass officers and the judges are all very overworked and busy. However, their main priority is to make decisions in the best interests of your children. Try to present your case clearly so that the right decisions are easier to make.

Additional Reading/Resources

If you are facing court alone many people have found Lucy Reed’s book, ‘Family Court Without A Lawyer’ particularly useful.

The Handover Book is a communication book for separated families. It allows both parents to always be aware of what is happening in their children’s lives as they go from one household to another.

If you want to read more about the emotional impact of separation and how to get yourself back on track Breaking Upwards is a good starting point.

 

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