The Art of (self) Advocacy is the start of a series of posts I intend to write about my experiences self-litigating at family court.
The Art of (self) Advocacy is the start of a series of posts I intend to write about my experiences self-litigating at family court. Most of the time, I have had to represent myself owing to LASPO, legal aid reforms which effectively ended legal aid for the majority of contact cases. The result of LASPO is that parents, low-income, working and silver spooned must now represent themselves, unless they can pay for a solicitor or meet extremely stringent criteria. This presents a few issues, if one parent is able to pay for a solicitor or meets the legal aid criteria, and the other parent, perhaps from a less well off background or less educated has to self-litigate, the scales of justice cannot ever be fairly balanced because one party will have representation and the other will not.
In my case, the scale was re-balanced primarily because I had support from family and, luckily, by the second time court came around, I was actually studying Law. This combination resulted in not just contact, but being awarded primary care of both of my daughters. That said, there have been occasions when I have used solicitors because the circumstances have called for it or because funding became available, under legal aid for a specific issue.
I do not anticipate going too deep into the knitty gritty of my children's particular cases. I feel it's important to mention that here because content I have produced and made publicly avaliable on the internet, regardless of context has been brought into those proceedings. I want to focus on advocacy, representation and the politics at play before, during and after proceedings - much of which can be compared to a RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) performance. If you have any feedback, comments or just want to get in touch with me, you may do so via the contact page.
Is Court Worth It?
When I first heard about court, I was very young. If I recall correctly, I was around 4/5. My father and maternal grandmother went to court about money which had gone missing from a bank account. A bank account in my name as it happened. The funds had been transferred and used for another purpose. My father won at court, but the subsequent side effect was an almost nuclear breakdown of family relationships for many years to come.
You might be wondering what significance that story has to advocacy, representation and politics of Family Courts. Well, before we get to those parts, I'd like you to consider whether it is worth going to court. Human relationships are complicated, Family relationships are more complicated and extremely difficult to rebuild once damaged or broken. In the example above, the sum moved from my child account was a mere £100, however the loss of childhood memories, experiences, family events and so on is priceless, and the effect of being caught up in adult conflict more damaging than losing money I wasn't even aware existed.
While you may be hurting or have a heart full of revenge, you must ask yourself whether court will solve your issues. In many cases, mediation would be better or, even legally required before court proceedings can take place. Court should be a last resort, a very last resort.
All that said. If court is on the cards, The Art of (self) Advocacy, below, will help improve your chances of persuading the judge of your case.
The Art of (self) Advocacy.
Contrary to popular belief, courts are not about justice. After all, what is justice? British courts always produce a winner and a loser therefore one party will always be aggrieved and feel robbed of their justice.
Courts are about putting on a good show. This is perhaps more on display at criminal courts, where clinging onto the vestibules of traditional dress and pomp remains popular. Coupled with the outdated traditions, high fees, regal decor and it is easy to compare such places, and the debates within them, to shakespearian plays at fancy theatres.
This means that advocates, increasingly so, litigants-in-person, must rely on the Art of Advocacy, essentially turning themselves into the star of the show - persuading the judge of the validity of their position with rational argument, fair mindedness, appropriate dress and adult behaviour. I'd also recommend any budding LIP reads Meditations.
1. Rational Argument
Following a breakup, maintaining rationality can be extremely difficult. In my case, I was missing important milestones in my daughters lives and my attempts to resolve issues outside of court were ignored which resulted in further clouded judgement because of the depressive slump which ensued. The lack of rationality during such an emotionally unbalanced time means that self-litigants can fall into the trap of making poor arguments, or becoming embroiled in 'he said, she said' and using the courts as a coping mechanism.
In order to avoid this, litigants-in-person must realise that court is not about them, their relationship or the issues within it, at least if the court is dealing with children and contact. It is therefore important to ensure that arguments brought to court are rational and concise. Argument A is a great example:
Argument A: "Good morning Sir, I have brought these matters to the courts attention as the Respondent and I have been unable to agree on contact arrangements and mediation has not been successful. It is my intention to seek contact with my son, Adam, who is 2. I have played a role in his life since he was born and it is within Adams interest that contact is maintained."
Argument A explains to the District Judge that contact is sought with the child and that the applicant parent has always been involved. It also gives oversight of actions already taken in order to achieve contact, this sets up the respondent, or their representative to be quizzed on why contact could not be established. Eagle eyed readers will also have spotted that the District Judge has been addressed as 'Sir', as is customary (unless the DJ is a lady, then Madam will suffice). No blame is placed on the respondent either which is especially diplomatic as it then falls to the respondent or their advocate to begin the blame game - if they feel so inclined.
A poorer argument can be seen in Argument B.
Argument B: "Morning, basically, she stopped contact because we had an argument about x, y and z. I said she shouldn't be involved in my private life and then all this started. I'm a great dad, just want to see Adam"
Argument B is the exact opposite of A. The respondent begins on an informal basis with the DJ and immediately starts the blame game. As outlined previously, this could be seen as a mechanism for trying to cope with mental and emotional issues. A few of the ways I coped with these was keeping a hand written journal, throwing myself into education, solving puzzles, reading, anti-depressants and, for a brief period, counselling. Now, I bike/walk and use the gym. I've also joined a local football group.
Basically, stick to arguments such as A and focus on personal improvement outside of court.
2. Fair Mindedness
This is a fairly simple one and we can sum it up as follows:
Don't go to court demanding the earth. Go with a fair plan and a few areas you would be willing to compromise and most of all, be humble.
Courts appreciate co-operation and compromise, not only because it's within the interests of resolving the case at hand but because it means they can improve their statistics - getting your case closed and out of the door, faster.
3. Appropriate Dress
Much like a Shakespearean actor or courtier at the palace of Versailles, each visitor to Family court should expect to dress for their part. This does not mean family court is an opportunity to show off the latest, high priced accessories or bringing your sword to duel. It means dressing responsibly, in reasonably priced clothing and looking approachable.
Gentleman should be well groomed, have matching shoes/belt and wear a shirt. Tie is optional. On the various times I have visited court, I have worn jeans, both for comfort and because I never usually wear anything else. To pretend otherwise would be false. I would expect to see Ladies in similarly toned down attire, without heels, jewellery or excessive makeup/perfume.
The reason for dressing appropriately is that wearing a £200 pair of trainers could lessen the impact of arguments to the judge, especially when for example, pleading poverty. Likewise, not dressing up, if your dress doesn't usually include smartish attire, could infer that you are not serious about proceedings and less able to care for children.
4. Adult Behaviour
If it hasn't already been made clear enough, attending court, with or without a solicitor means facing extreme scrutiny by court staff, opposition advocates and a District Judge. Everything said, worn, written, every movement, voice tone and breath will be watched, monitored and feedback given to the relevant people.
Under such conditions, a prudent litigant in person would do well to refrain from conducting themselves inappropriately. For example, if the respondent is likely to antagonise or cause outbursts, be responsible and request separate seating rooms or ask the attendant to nudge you when the hearing begins. By communicating with staff and distracting yourself with music, a book, a podcast or whatever it is, a certain level of maturity has been shown and will be noted. Likewise, during the hearing, refrain from making lude, crude, sly, insulting, silly or immature remarks. Save them until afterwards, when in the pub or on the phone to family.
Most importantly though, rise to the occasion when there is the opportunity to be the bigger person. That's what adults do - put petty issues behind them, forget grudges and move forward.