As much as all parties try to avoid it, some couples end up in front of a judge in their divorce. Sometimes it is just a perfunctory appearance in which the judge makes sure both parties understand their rights and the effects of the divorce agreement they've made.
Other times, it's more complicated. The divorcing couple might have to make arguments or present evidence. And when they find themselves in court without a lawyer, it can be disconcerting. Of course, no article can fully prepare anyone for that process. But here's my perspective on some common mistakes I've seen unrepresented people make and a few tips on how to take the edge off the process.
- If you get the chance, go to the court beforehand and observe. Judges typically hear certain types of motions and procedures on different days; you should watch one like your own. Depending on the type, they may or may not be open to the public. But even if you can't sit through a similar procedure, seeing where you are going and how things work will eliminate at least one layer of stress.
- Know the local rules. You can get them from the court clerk's office or sometimes online. They will tell you how your court works. It will also give you an opportunity to learn about any assistance the court might offer to the unrepresented.
- On the day of your proceeding, dress and act in the same way you would for a job interview.
- Make sure you bring everything and everyone you need to court. Be organized. There is nothing worse than having to shuffle through papers when all eyes are on you. And if you want someone to testify to something, he must be there. You can't tell the judge what he would have said.
- Observe all of the common courtesies. Be on time. Address the judge as "Judge" or "Your Honor". Be respectful to the judge's staff. They are an extension of the judge. These things sound silly, but they're worth a mention. In a couple's fight for freedom, good manners are usually the first casualty. Because the judge is often put in the position of judging your credibility and reasonableness, how you come across counts.
- If you are required to testify, don't exaggerate or adjust the facts. Judges know what makes sense and what doesn't. Also remember that the proceedings are being recorded. Don't let a moment of emotional embellishment hurt your credibility.
- Don't argue with the judge or with the other side and don't speak out of turn. It isn't necessary to blurt out, "That's not true." Judges know you two do not agree on what happened, otherwise you wouldn't be there.
- Have a checklist of points you want to make. You're nervous and in an unfamiliar environment. Things don't always go as expected, and you are never quite sure what the other side is going to do. So if you have a checklist of the points you want to make, you'll be less likely to forget to make them.
- Ask questions if you are confused. Don't say you understand if you don't.
- Don't focus so much on the point you are trying to make that you don't pay attention to the proceedings. You have to answer the judge's questions and respond to what the other side says. You can't do that if all you are thinking about is what you want to say.
As you can see, my advice here deals with both logistical and emotional preparation. Some of it sounds like simple common sense, and it is. But emotions often trump logic in this arena. You need to prepare both legally and emotionally and then make a conscious effort to step away and view the situation objectively, so you can show up fully armed, not with anger and attitude, but with information and rationality.
Judge Lynn Toler, a graduate of Harvard and The University of Pennsylvania Law School, served as a municipal court judge for eight years. She presides over the courtroom on the nationally syndicated television show Divorce Court and is the author of the book My Mother's Rules, a guide to greater emotional control.