Skill 1. Telling the judge why you’re in court, and what you want, in just one or two sentences.
Many self-reps feel that finally being in front of a judge gives them the chance to “tell my story” and get a whole lot of grievances and complaints off their chest. They want to vent about all of the injustices and wrongs done to them and how bad the other party is. The judge may look interested, but is this effective? No.
Just because a judge is being patient, and waiting until you get to the point, doesn’t mean he or she is agreeing with you. They’re working hard to pull out the relevant details to help them make a decision. The harder the judge has to concentrate to get the information he or she needs, the more difficult it is to make a decision in your favour.
You need to be concise and practice the skill to put your complaints aside and deal with only 2 questions: Why are you here? What result do you want?
Make sure to take the time to rehearse the answers to each question so you can state your position in a loud and intelligible voice. Here are some concrete examples.
“Judge, I’m here to change the access arrangements from the existing order to the terms set out in the schedule attached to my notice of motion. Essentially I’m asking for a more flexible arrangement than the one now in place.”
“Your Honour, I’m here because In lost my job 6 months ago and the best new job I could get pays less than what I was earning when I agreed to child support of $879 per month. I need an order for reduced support payments, but my former wife won’t agree.”
“Judge, my former wife is asking that she be allowed to move to a different city because she’s planning to marry her boyfriend who lives there. But that will have a disastrous effect on the time the children and I have together and the nature of our time together, and I’m opposing her request for that reason.”
“Your Honour, my former partner has been interfering with my access to our children by making last minute changes in arrangements to suit her/his convenience without consulting me, cancelling visits unilaterally, and generally refusing to comply with the terms of our access order. I’m asking that she/he be found in contempt and that the order require that the terms be complied with or the residential arrangements for the children are to be changed to me.”
In each case it took only 2 sentences to give the court a good idea of what the matter is about, both side’s positions, and your suggested solution.
This is called the Tim Horton’s Pitch: what you tell the person in line for morning coffee when they ask what you’re doing today so you can be finished before it’s their turn to order.
But more than simply being brief, it shows that you respect the system and the court’s time by being clear and to the point. So long as what you say is truthful and supported by the evidence, it shows that you’re a trustworthy person to whom the judge should pay attention. It’s a terrific way to be effective.
Skill 2. Practice, practice, practice
It’s not easy to get the reason you’re in court into just a few, clear, sentences. It takes practice. Thinking that you can ad lib this when the judge looks at you to speak is a big mistake. Good lawyers take lots of time to get their case into the important first few sentences. They try doing it different ways. And they practice saying it out loud.
Some of us convince ourselves that we know our case so well that we don’t need to practice anything. Others convince ourselves that our matter is so complex and involves so many details that we can’t get it into a couple of sentences. We think the judge needs to hear everything in order to understand what the case is about. And some of us convince ourselves we’re just no good at talking on our feet and we won’t be able to tell the court what we want it to know.
That sort of thinking creates mental blocks that hold us back. One trick to overcoming this is practice.
Write down what you want to say. Read it over and change it to what the judge needs to know. Try different ways to present your case to see what works best for you. Then shorten it until you get what the judge needs to know into 2 -3 sentences.
Write down whatever you want to say in point form. Make each point only one or two sentences. Re-arrange the points into a logical sequence. Look at what you’ve written for each point and see if it can be shortened. Then practice saying it out loud in front of a mirror or to someone you trust and can give you feedback.
The more you practice the easier it will be to tell the judge, and the more comfortable you’ll be in court. Pro athletes practice before every game. So should you.
Skill 3. Avoid the nasty
Personal attacks hurt your case. You may be tempted to put negative things about the other party in your material or presentation, but you need to be able to resist that temptation.
Spending time to complain about the other person and all the nasty things that they did hurts your case. If it’s not relevant, you’re wasting the judge’s time and making it harder for him or her to understand the important information. If you turn off the judge with your whining and complaining, he or she might miss hearing the important things you have to say.
If, however, the conduct of the other party is really relevant to the issue, make it clear why the information is important to the judge’s decision. For example, if the behaviour shows that the other party says inappropriate things front of the children, or if he or she acts without judgement.
Making things relevant to the issues the judge has to decide, instead of leaving them as a personal attack on the other person, makes your comments far more powerful and effective. Judges don’t like hearing negative personal attacks.
Skill 4. Writing in an clear and logical way
Much of the key work in creating an effective case is done before you stand up to speak. It’s in the written material the judge reads in the file. What you write and how you write it is the first step in showing the judge why the court should give you what you want.
Are you able to set out your story, what you want, and why you should get it, in a clear and understandable way? You need to be able to organize what you need to say in a way that makes sense to the judge. Just like what you say to the judge when you’re speaking, what you say to the judge in your writing needs to be clear and easy to understand.
The key to good legal writing is re-writing. Go over what you’ve written and then ask yourself: “If a stranger didn’t know anything about my case would they get a good idea of what it’s about and why they should agree with me, or would they find parts of what I’ve written confusing? Will they get my point? Is what I’ve written difficult to read or easy?”
Then start over and re-write everything. Show it to someone. Ask them to help you be more clear and focussed. Remember why you’re writing the document – it’s not to get everything of your chest, it’s to give the judge the information he or she needs to understand what you’re asking for and to encourage them to give it to you.
If you can do this, you’ll find your written material to be a really effective way of getting a judge to want to help you, even before your case is called.
Skill 5. Gathering the relevant information and staying on top of the materials you need
You may have to gather information as part of your case. You may need to get correct bank statements to show what money was in different bank accounts, or account statements to show the value of investments or RRSPs, at key dates. You may need copies of Insurance policies or property ownership papers, or tax and utility bills. Perhaps you’ll need information from your employer or doctor.
They key to gathering information effectively is to create a list and check it off as it’s collected. Keep it in one place and keep it organized and you’ll be good to go.
Skill 6. Being Organized
It’s important to be able to organize your material. Do you have the various exhibits and supporting material you need to support your story? Can you collect the documents and evidence you need to support your position? Can you put your material into a sensible and organized structure?
If you can do this, great. If that’s not what you do well, ask a friend or family member to help you organizing everything. Taking the time to organize your materials helps you to organize your case and present it to the judge in an effective way.
Skill 7. Being a good researcher
In some cases a bit of research is needed to collect the information and evidence that supports your story. You may also need to gather legal information. Will you be able to do your own research? Do you know how to do it?
Skill 8. Being on time and knowing how to wait
Court matters are filled with deadlines. Are you able to get your papers filed on time and show up in court when scheduled?
Do you have the time to get to the court office and to get the information you need? Are you able to explain what you want and do you have the patience, if needed, to go from one court office to another until you get it?
If you’re late submitting documents or in showing up to court, this could have a very serious impact on your outcome.
It’s not uncommon for a self-rep to find that they’ve gone to the wrong counter or wrong office are in the wrong line or have the wrong papers with them. It’s important that you recognize this at the beginning, give yourself lots of time and have patience.
And patience is an important thing to bring with you whenever you have to deal with the court offices. Often the lines are long. Give yourself lots of time. The family court process is going to have a long-term impact on your life and it’s worth taking extra time so you can avoid being late.
Skill 9. Paying attention to detail
Are you able to pay attention to detail? For example, before beginning to fill in a blank on a form do you read the instructions to be sure you’re filling it out properly? Have you attached all the documents you refer to in your materials? When you refer to a section of some legislation, have you checked to be sure you’ve got the right number and reference?
If you’re missing any details or fill out a form wrong, it will be harder for the judge to rule in your favour. So it helps your case if you’ve been careful about everything before you file it with the court office.
Skill 10. Understanding the appropriate Guidelines that affect your case
Have you looked at the Child Support Guidelines or the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines to be sure that what you’re saying about them is accurate? Have you checked out the sections you’ll be referring to and do you understand them?
There are guides available for each the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines and the Child Support Guidelines. Read and understand them. It will help you be effective in presenting your case.
Skill 11. Distancing yourself
There’s a phrase in legal circles: “A lawyer who acts for himself has a fool for a client.” It means that the best person to represent you is someone who isn’t emotionally connected to your case. As a self-rep, you’re acting for yourself, so of course you’re emotionally connected.
So the skill here is to be as objective and realistic as possible. Be practical and rational instead of emotional. You can only be effective if you’re not all worked up about the case. This isn’t easy. But it’s important. Can you do it?
Try to look at the case from the perspective of a person who doesn’t know you and doesn’t know the other party.
Acting rationally includes recognizing the weak parts of your case and dropping them. This will help you maintain realistic expectations and help you focus your presentation. Think about what stranger would need to know to give you what you want, and if that person would think you deserve it.
You need to be objective about the case and your positions.
Skill 12. Knowing your motivation and remove the destructive elements from your position
Are you motivated to fight so that the other person doesn’t “win,” or get an “easy victory”? Are you motivated by jealousy or revenge? Do you want to punish the other person for what they did to you or your family? Tough. Those aren’t reasons to fight in court and won’t get you anywhere. Do you have the skill to remove these factors from your thinking?
Knowing why you’re really taking your positions will help you shape a more effective presentation. If your positions are motivated by one of the factors mentioned above – re-think your approach. At least, re-frame it so that you can present a more positive position that will get you the results you want.
Skill 13. Separating money issues from the kids
Do you have the skill to consider what’s best for the kids even if that means getting less money, or paying more money, than you wanted?
Not everyone is able to admit when continuing the fight will be harmful to the children. Can you put their interests ahead of yours?
Very often that’s what the case comes down to, and you’ll do better if you recognize this before a judge does.
Skill 14. Standing up to a bully
Are you able to stake out a reasonable position and stick to it despite threats and bullying from the other party? First, you have to recognize when you’re dealing with a bully. A bully is someone who uses:
- personal attacks
You may have given in lots of times in the past to keep things together, but do you have the skill now to say enough is enough? A bully knows what sort of tactics worked well in the past and will try to use them against you in court. Can you stand your ground now? That doesn’t mean you need to retaliate. It means maintaining your position and clearly stating that position to the judge.
The interesting thing about bullies is that they get away with their conduct so often that they assume you’ll give in again. If you stand up to a bully, a judge can usually see what’s happening and put that bully in their place.
Often, standing up to a bully starts with just saying “No. Enough. I’m not giving in again.”
Skill 15. Knowing what you’re good at
The truth is that not everyone is terrific at each of these things. Not even lawyers. The trick is to recognize which skills you have and are good at and which ones you need to wor