At Thistoo, it is our mission to keep divorcing couples out of the courtroom. However, we understand that sometimes an amicable divorce is not possible and a trial becomes necessary to finalize the divorce. With recent studies showing that the average cost of legal fees for a two-day civil trial has gone up to $31,330, it is no wonder that more and more people cannot afford a lawyer. In fact, it is predicted that half of all people appearing before a family court in Canada will be self-represented in 2016.
Self-represented litigants face a host of challenges in family law courts. Divorce trials are inherently emotional experiences, and having to represent yourself is certainly a daunting task for most. To help alleviate some of your fears we’ve put together some tips to help get you through your court trial and on with your life:
Before the Trial:
Tip #1 – Spend a day at the courthouse
Before your day in court, try to make a point of going to your local courthouse to watch the proceedings and familiarize yourself with the surroundings. Seeing how things work, how a judge hears different types of motions, and how they address litigants will help you to resolve any uncertainties or fear you may be feeling.
Tip #2 - Do some research
Your situation is not unique. Cases that are very similar to yours have appeared in court in the past and you can access these cases online through the Canadian Legal Information Institute.
At Thistoo, we've just launched our Case Comparison tool that provides you with the results of the 3 most similar cases from our database of over 58,000 Canadian divorce cases. The tool gives you a clear understanding of what you can expect from a Judge and what a Judge considers when making their ruling.
Tip #3 – Seek available assistance
Another good reason to go to the courthouse before your trial is to learn about any assistance that may be available to you. Many courthouses provide assistance to those who do not have or cannot afford a lawyer. In addition, staff working at the court counters or information services desks are able to provide you with information about the legal process you are about to embark on. Please note court clerks cannot provide legal advice, the can only provide legal information. This means that they can explain the legal process to you, but they cannot tell you what you should do in your specific situation – only lawyers can provide legal advice.
Tip #4 – Make a list of important points
In the heat of the moment it is easy to forget an important point, as you never know what the other side may say that might distract you from your plan. Make sure you’ve prepared a checklist and organized all of your paperwork in an easy to find location. Use labelled tabs to help you locate documentation quickly, the last thing you want is to forget an important point or make the court wait while you search through a stack of unorganized papers.
Tip #5 – Beware of ex-parte communications
Ex-parte communications are communications you make with the Judge (or the Judge’s clerk) without copying the other person (ie. your spouse, or if they have representation, their lawyer). This means that you cannot email, phone, send a letter, or talk to the Judge without the other party being included as well.
During the Trial:
Tip #6 – Dress for the part
On the day of your proceeding, make sure to present yourself as you would if you were going to a job interview or nice restaurant. Judges look favourably upon those who show respect to the courts by dressing in appropriate attire.
Tip #7 – Observe common courthouse courtesies.
Divorce trials can get ugly and acting upon your emotions is never a good idea. Always address the Judge as “Judge” or “Your Honour”. Show respect to all courthouse staff members. Do not speak out of turn or argue with the Judge or your Ex. Becoming overly emotional in court is never a good idea and this is one of the main mistakes self-represented litigants make. Try to detach yourself from your emotional state and focus on what is relevant to the Judge.
Tip #8 – Don’t lie or exaggerate the facts
This may seem like common sense, but when you’re nervous and under a lot of pressure it’s easy to make mistakes. Remember that everything in a court proceeding is being recorded. A Judge will have to assess your reasonableness and credibility; don’t give them any reason to doubt you.
Tip #9 – Ask questions if you are confused
The Judge understands that you are not a legal professional. It’s much better to say that you don’t understand than to say you do when you really don’t. A Judge will not punish you for being honest. If you’re unclear about something, simply ask the Judge a question.
After the Trial:
Tip #10 – Treat yourself.
It’s all over now and its time to reward yourself for all the hard work you’ve done. On the day your trial is set to conclude, plan something nice to look forward to. Whether it’s a fancy dinner out with friends or getting all the fixings stocked for a relaxing night in, make sure you look out for number one.
I hope that you now have a better understanding of what self-representing will involve. As you can see, preparation is everything. Make sure you’ve given yourself plenty of time to prepare your case and also to prepare yourself emotionally.
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