I routinely get calls from parents who for a number of reasons are pro se (representing themselves) in their custody disputes. Many choose this option for financial reasons while others who have had previous negative experiences with a divorce attorney, feel they will be better able to represent themselves. Regardless of what the reasons are, going pro se carries with it a number of challenges not only for the pro se parent but also for the court.
Probably the greatest impediment to going pro se in a custody dispute is the lack of familiarity, knowledge and experience with court procedures. Although information can be found online about how and what to file in court as a pro se client, none of this replicates what is learned in law school or the experience of being pracising litigating divorce attorney. The challenge is even greater when the pro se parent comes up against an attorney representing the other parent. Unfortunately, the situation that results is similar to going into a gun fight without a gun.
Additionally, parents who represent themselves typically lack the objectivity needed to adequately argue their own custody case. The issues that they may legitimately feel are important to their custody case may actually hold little relevance in court especially with judges who may not identify with or share their concerns. Experienced attorneys are not only versed in law and courtroom procedures, but they also are familiar with the nuances of the judges before whom they appear. Going in cold before a judge about whom you know nothing, places a pro se parent at a distinct disadvantage in successfully arguing a custody case.
While there has been an increase in pro se representation, many judges still find dealing with a pro se parent frustrating. In many cases, judges find themselves caught between being a judge and also helping the parent represent him or herself. When judges have to explain courtroom procedures and walk the pro se parent through the court process, this takes valuable time away from the already limited time set for a custody hearing. In the end, this can result in judges making decisions about custody matters based on less than optimal arguments - sometimes to the disadvantage of the unskilled pro se parent.
So what options are available to pro se parents in a custody dispute? Here are some things to consider:
- Consult with an attorney on an "as need" basis about procedures as well as reviewing motions to be filed.
- Consult with a trial consultant about custody case strategy & remembering that a trial consultant is NOT qualified to provide legal advice.
- Do your homework and do not rush into filing a motion on your own behalf until you are fully prepared about the procedures involved.
While going pro se is not the optimal situation for a parent involved in a custody dispute, being prepared and knowledgeable of courtroom procedures will be of great benefit.
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with Dr. Reena Sommer