(a Four-Part Blog Series - Introduction)
At some point in your career, a family law attorney must deal with an opponent who represents himself. (65% of family court litigants are what we call pro se.) When our opposition chooses to represent himself, many of us react skeptically, worrying, not without justification, about the increased litigation caused by an adversary who is not necessarily knowledgeable in law, evidence, and procedures, and who also may not feel the need to treat you as professionally as you treat him. So how do you deal with a pro se adversary in such a way that, at the end of the day, both he and your client refer you clients, as I have?
The rule of law and fundamental fairness mandate that the court’s rules of procedure apply to all, including pro se parties. While the courts ultimately adhere to this idea, many exhibit great patience with pro ses who fail to follow the rules, in the interest of assuring them the same access to justice as represented parties, even if that comes at the expense of procedural efficiency. As a result, litigating against a pro se can be more expensive and time-consuming for our clients.
A court must keep the interests of justice in mind. Pro ses are certainly allowed to represent themselves. Nevertheless, the court must follow the law and rules. Judges and their staffs maintain neutrality when interacting with all litigants, including those who choose to represent themselves. They may give out information, but not advice. (What’s the difference? Legal information includes info regarding court procedures and forms. Legal advice is subtly or proactively assisting someone to choose a legal strategy.)
While I will offer you a total of fifteen tips in this series of blogs, the two most critical suggestions I have are 1) take your mother’s advice; always be nice; and 2) never communicate with this person orally without a third party (not your client) as your witness. As we move further into these tips, you will see why!