Thursday, January 15, 2009

Don't Try This at Home (Without a Lawyer): The Perils of Representing Yourself

Sometimes people decide to try to represent themselves in a divorce case. That's almost always a serious mistake. If you can't afford a lawyer, and if you have any assets or debts to divide, you might be better off waiting to file for divorce until you can afford to hire a lawyer. In Tarrant County, courts don't have the legal authority or resources to provide free attorneys for people who can't afford them, except in very narrow circumstances, which don't usually include divorce cases.

If you find yourself in a divorce and you don't have the funds to pay an attorney, you are probably better off negotiating a settlement than you would be in going to trial. If you try to negotiate without an attorney to help you, keep in mind that you probably don't have the leverage to get much of what you would like in settlement. Nevertheless, you would probably come out worse if you went to trial.

There are many problems you will likely encounter if you go to trial representing yourself in a Fort Worth, Texas family law court. In general, you will be required to act like an attorney in many ways, even though you don't have the training or experience. Here are some of the obstacles you will face, especially if there is an attorney on the other side.

1. Local rules of court. Tarrant County family lawyers are required to follow a set of local rules of court that were set up specifically for Tarrant County family law courts. The rules set out duties and deadlines, among other things. Failure to comply can result in penalties and possible exclusion of evidence and issues.

2. Procedural rules. In addition to the local rules, there are other rules that must be observed. The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and various sections of the Texas Family Code, as well as some other Texas and federal statutes, must be complied with. Like with the local rules, failure to follow the other procedural rules can result in penalties and possible exclusion of evidence and issues.

3. Knowing how to present or object to evidence. Simply put, you may not be able to get evidence accepted for consideration by the court if the evidence is not properly offered. There are different predicates (preliminary requirements), procedures and authentication steps which must be followed. Texas law has a number of rules of evidence which must be complied with. For example, if evidence is considered to be "hearsay", you probably won't be able to present that evidence in court, no matter how much you want the court to hear it. Watching a lot of TV or movies will not prepare you for getting evidence into a trial.

4. Knowing what is realistic to expect a court to do. In a slightly different vein, it really helps to have an attorney who is experienced in Tarrant County family law courts because that attorney will have a pretty good idea about what is realistic to expect a court to do. Part of the strategy of a case is evaluating the possibility of an outcome that a party wants. Sometimes it hurts your case if all or part of what you ask the court to do is unrealistic. That may be based on the law (what the law permits) and/or on the judge's preferences. Judges are human and can get upset or annoyed if they feel like their time is being wasted. There are so many cases pending that judges cannot afford to waste time on trials that are absurd. Asking for something the judge won't or can't do may result in adverse ruling in other areas as well.

5. Properly dealing with experts in court. Whether the expert is there for financial testimony or psychological issues or something else, there are certain ways to properly ask questions of experts. There are also many improper and objectionable ways to ask questions. This is a specific area where a non-lawyer may not know how to get admissible evidence in front of a judge. An experienced attorney can often tie up another attorney on issues involving experts. It would not take much for an attorney to block a non-attorney from getting expert testimony in.

6. Making the best impression possible. With experience, an attorney learns skills and gains insight about persuasion and communication. Knowing how trials proceed and often knowing something about the judge's preferences give an attorney a great head start in making a good impression in court.

7. Avoiding upsetting the judge. Judges are human and they can get ticked off, some easier than others. With experience, attorneys usually learn what they can get away with and what they should avoid with certain judges. A person representing him/herself lacks that insight and runs the risk of offending a judge and that can affect the outcome of a case.

Divorce is a very serious matter. It is life changing. There can be huge consequences financially. Children's issues are being determined by a stranger. If you are facing a divorce, you should only represent yourself as a last resort. Instead, you should explore every financing option available, including taking a loan or maybe using some home equity, so that you can hire an attorney. In Fort Worth, and throughout Tarrant County, Texas, there are many fine family lawyers who charge a variety of rates and make many different fee arrangements. If you can't find one you can afford, keep looking.

Finally, as another alternative, if you end up representing yourself, try being realistic, be reasonable and be ready to compromise. Even with your own attorney, those are things you need to do. For some reason, parties who represent themselves frequently seem to be unrealistic, unreasonable and uncompromising. Help yourself by being aware of what you are doing and try to act in a manner that will lead to settlement. In almost every case, settlement is preferable to a trial for many reasons.

If you would like to share your experiences representing yourself or with your spouse representing him/herself, please send in a comment.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice article Dick, these are all good reasons to stay away from representing yourself. Many people think that they don't need legal counsel because the facts will speak for themselves. In a perfect world this would be the case, but it almost never happens with out the help of a lawyer. Divorce proceedings also complicate the matter by being stressful and emotional, which can hurt your already slim chances at successfully representing yourself. In the end, a divorce has to many life changing implications to handle without some sound legal advice.