Eight months into my divorce, I ran out of money. I was too poor to pay a lawyer, but not poor enough to get legal aid. If I gave up the fight, I would become destitute, and so the only option left was to deal with my divorce without legal counselling or representation. At 62 years old, self-representation in divorce was a big undertaking. I researched everything online, picked apart Family Law and the Acts that went with it. I learned about the different stages of the divorce process, the types of court appearances, how to serve documents, and how to write affidavits. I went to the legal information office at the courthouse, took a number and waited. I was allowed one question, and depending on the lawyer I talked to that day, sometimes I got a lot of information. Other times, they would ask me if I had legal aid, and I had to say I didn’t. I paid for the expensive parking I couldn’t afford, and left without information, it was truly overwhelming! After a few months, I realized that the only way to get my fair share of everything was to reach an agreement with my husband. I needed to act logically, show no emotion or compassion, ask for what I wanted, and bluff my way to a settlement. I had to put my counseling training aside because it was absolutely the wrong approach for this type of situation.
I was a wreck emotionally and I was exhausted, but I had to keep going because my future depended on it. The good news was that I had no legal fees since I was doing all the work myself and exploring my own self-representation in divorce. I also had more control on what happened. If I wanted to set a case conference date, I could, and this empowered me in many ways. The process was still very scary and overwhelming but what choice did I have? When I finally set a court date, I was reminded at the courthouse, that when you represent yourself in court, no special treatment will be given to you. You’re expected to know the procedures, and not create any disruptions, delays or problems of any kind. This was extremely intimidating.
When the day came, I entered the courtroom with its wooden benches facing the judge’s desk. I was stressed to the limit and so nervous, I could hardly breathe. I could see my husband sitting next to his lawyer. I avoided his stare, because I knew he was ready to rip my head off for not giving up. His lawyer greeted me with a polite but condescending look. He was enjoying the fact that I didn’t have a lawyer. He was going to have fun watching me squirm, because I was ignorant of the law just enough to get myself in trouble. My mind and emotions were racing as the judge entered the room, and we were told to stand as a sign of respect.
The stage was set. My husband’s lawyer gave his statement with an unexpected twist to throw me off balance. The element of surprise was intended to bring about defensiveness and anger in me. He addressed the judge, and stated that I hadn’t cooperated in disclosing information. In other words, I was the one stalling.
The judge didn’t look kindly on parties who tried to delay the process, and I was automatically on the hot seat, exactly where the lawyer wanted me to be. He did this intentionally to disarm me, so I’d break down and lose control. It was a set up to make sure I failed. With no one to support me in the courtroom, it was easy for me to get rattled, especially at my age. I had supplied all the documents required of me, but, at that moment, I didn’t know how to present my argument to defend myself. It was frustrating and scary. At the time, I remember thinking, “I wish I had someone to pull on my sleeve to remind me to stay calm and focused”. The judge waited for my reply to see what I had to say in my defense. I was having a hard time getting started, because it felt like my vocal cords were paralyzed. I sensed that if I went on the defensive, his lawyer would have a quick come back that would confuse the issue even more. I ignored his accusations and stuck to my prepared script. In the end, I prepared an “Offer to Settle” document without the help of anyone. My husband agreed to every single demand I made and my self-representation was a success. The only legal counseling I received was 15 minutes at the last court appearance when the judge assigned a legal counsel to make sure I understood what I was signing. I must say I was grateful for that much. My contested divorce was the biggest battle of my life and it lasted three years.