A Note About Representing Yourself
Anywhere from 60% to 80% of California family law cases involve self-represented litigants. The numbers vary from county to county. This is a troubling statistic, but one that many would argue is unavoidable in our current financial climate, with fewer individuals able to afford an attorney, and fewer attorneys offering pro bono legal services. That being said, there is no substitute for competent legal representation in your family law case. None.
Fortunately, California is unique when it comes to family court. Over the years, the Judicial Council of California has completed tremendous work making family court simpler for self-represented litigants than perhaps any other state in the union. The spearhead of this effort is turning numerous, complicated legal pleadings into short, easy to understand forms that many lay people can complete. In most other states, litigants must still use traditional legal pleadings.
The caveat is that family law forms are deceptively simple. While they are easy to complete, checking the wrong box may make a huge difference when it comes to obtaining your judgment. It’s natural to believe attorneys would discourage you from representing yourself only to keep potential clients from walking out the door with their money. But it’s actually quite the contrary. Because attorneys have an intimate relationship with the law, they cringe when they see a self-represented litigant make an irrevocable mistake.
Free Help Is Available
You can get free assistance by visiting your local self-help center and taking advantage of the services your tax dollars generate. Each county in California has one, or is affiliated with a county that does. The people there will assist you, making sure you have what you need to do this yourself.
The trick is that – because the government must remain neutral in your case – they cannot provide legal advice. And because the line between what constitutes legal information, and legal advice is a blurry one, self-help workers will typically stay far away from anything that could even be construed as legal advice, even when it really is just information. The self-help centers for the counties in which Pakpour Family Law operate are linked here:
- Yolo County Family Court Self-Help Center
- Sacramento County Family Court Self-Help Center
- Placer County Legal Help Center
- Solano County Self-Help Center
A Note About the Law
The final caveat about completing legal forms on your own is understanding that there is a lot of law behind, and around, those forms. For example, the forms allow you to request child custody, but they don’t tell you what factors the judge must contemplate when deciding whether you’ll get it. The forms allow you to request spousal support, but they do not describe the factors the judge must consider when deciding whether to grant it in a permanent or semi-permanent judgment. These factors are explained in The California Family Code.
The forms allow you to join a third party (such as another person claiming custody, or a benefit plan) to your case, but they do not tell you whether it is actually in your interest to do so, or whether the law requires the judge to approve your motion. The rules for his motion, however, can be found in The California Rules of Court for family court cases.
Finally, the forms allow you to declare the property you and the other party own as a community, and describe your child’s situation in the other party’s home. But they do not instruct you on what evidence you may use to prove either of those things. The rules for this can be found in The California Evidence Code.
In addition to the codes, and rules, there is case law handed down by the California Appellate and Supreme Courts that distinguish these rules as they apply to particular cases. Your Superior Court judge, depending on the circumstances, may be required to follow this “precedent.”
While your family law matter may proceed to a productive conclusion without ever knowing these rules, not all do, and such rules may be used by the other party to your disadvantage should you not appreciate them. Family court judges are prohibited (or at least discouraged) from cutting you a break on the rules just because you do not have a lawyer.
There are guides that condense these rules, and the case law, into helpful digests that practitioners use. Two of the most popular in the profession are CEB’s Practice Under the California Family Code, and Rutter Group’s California Family Law Practice Guide. These are expensive and I recommend taking advantage of your county’s free law library, which may have one of these guides, or one from another publisher, on its shelf.
If your county has closed its free law library, visit a neighboring county where one is still open. The U.C. Davis Mabie Law Library is a public law library, meaning it is free for you to visit and take advantage of the resources there.
Every litigant should also appreciate the so-called “local rules” of the jurisdiction in which they decide to litigate their case. Pakpour Family Law represents litigants in Yolo, Sacramento, and Placer Counties. You can find the local rules for those courts here:
- Sacramento County Local Rules
- Placer County Local Rules (.pdf)
- Yolo County Local Rules
- Solano County Local Rules
Counties often require that their own forms – in addition to the ones that the state requires – be completed, filed and/or served on the other party as well. You’ll need to visit the county’s court website to discover whether you require one of these “‘local” forms.
Always Inquire Into Attorney’s Fees
Some litigants may forego representation because they cannot afford attorney’s fees. However, oftentimes the other party can afford it. And under California Family Code section 2030(b), attorney’s fees and costs may be awarded “for legal services rendered or costs incurred before or after the commencement of the proceeding.” In other words, you don’t have to wait until proceedings are under way to obtain attorney’s fees from the other party. Your family attorney will be able to assist you with this request.
There is an old proverb, stating unsympathetically: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” While the proverb’s origin is unknown, the person who uttered it obviously did not foresee 21st century family law litigants, who struggle to pay the rent or mortgage, let alone their lawyers. That being said, the decision to represent yourself before a family court judge is not one you should take lightly.