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Local View: Think twice before representing yourself in divorce court

Most of us are familiar with the old saying, "He who represents himself in court has a fool for a client." In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that even an attorney, whose profession is representing clients in court, should not represent himself or herself.

Jessica SterleAnd yet the trend toward self-representation has grown significantly in recent years. The ramifications have not yet been fully recognized.

One can represent oneself in court without a lawyer. Once called pro se, unrepresented individuals are now known as self-represented litigants. Whatever name you give it, individuals going into a courtroom are required to know and follow court rules and the law. Self-represented litigants must obey the same rules as an attorney.

Going to court without a lawyer used to be unthinkable. That's because court procedures are complicated and very specific. A fumble can put a dent in your credibility — and your case. If you are not familiar with courtroom protocol and procedures, a judge might not see all the necessary facts to understand your case.

Procedures aren't the only thing to be concerned about. Legislation is constantly in flux. The decisions of judges in higher courts flow down into the lower courts and must be honored there.

It is also exceedingly difficult to be objective. When it comes to divorce- and family-court matters, it can be a real challenge to step back and see things through an unbiased lens.

It may be difficult, too, to keep your emotions removed from the case. Stress can limit your ability to know how to present your case to a judge or to know the next steps to proceed with your case.

People choose self-representation to avoid the high costs associated with legal representation. This is certainly a sensible aim. Money doesn't grow on trees. One alternative is to avoid divorce court altogether and choose mediation, which has several benefits. The costs of a divorce, both financial and emotional, can be significantly reduced through mediation. The two of you, not the courts, decide the outcome. With regard to children, if you decide to change your arrangements later, you do not have to return to court. Regarding the duration of the process, you and your spouse would determine this, not the courts.

Mediation involves compromise and collaboration. If you are unable to come to terms on your own, you'll want to know that it will cost you more in the end. In most cases, however, mediation is a great way for a couple to avoid the huge cost of a trial.

If in the end you still wish to represent yourself in court, there are things you need to know. You must be able to organize and summarize your case. You should attack the issues and not your spouse. You should be over-prepared; know the meanings of courtroom terms. Know how to fill out and file forms. Know what your spouse is going to say. And stick to the issues.

Mistakes in court have significant long-term consequences. It's not like flubbing a clarinet solo in high school band. When something important is at stake, your best decision, seeking guidance from an attorney, will cost money but can save years of expenses and headaches in the long run.

Jessica L. Sterle is a family law attorney in Duluth.

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