Going to court takes time and preparation; it can also be very stressful and often very emotional, particularly, in family law cases. For these reasons, it is generally best for a person to be represented in court by an attorney. If you are not going to have an attorney represent you in court, you should prepare yourself for court by getting information on the case and court process, or consult an attorney about your case to discuss possible options and outcomes.
You must prepare your court papers, file your case and then give notification of the case to the other party. In family law, the other party may be your spouse, ex-spouse, civil union partner or the parent of your child.
If you are starting a new case (such as a divorce or a parentage case), the law requires that the person be given the petition and summons by the sheriff. Proper service in Illinois requires the documents be given to the person that you are having the problem with (called personal service) or given to a member of his or her household over the age of 13 (called substitute service).
If you are filing a motion or petition in an existing case, you can mail the petition or motion that you filed along with a notice of motion with the information about the court date. The documents should be sent far enough in advance so the person receives them at least five (5) days before court, not counting holidays and weekends. While the law does not require that the papers be sent by registered mail with return receipt, it is a good idea to do so, in addition to regular mail, as this provides proof to the judge that you gave proper notice.
You need to be willing to do the necessary work to represent yourself. A pro se person is held to the same standards as an attorney. If you are going to represent yourself, you will need to understand what the case is about and what your responsibilities are. You can get this information by consulting an attorney about your case or obtaining information about the case and court process either online or by going to a law library. The judge is there to decide the case impartially so you cannot expect that the judge will act as your attorney or prepare your case.
If you are the respondent in a Domestic Relations case that was filed in a suburban district, you have the option of having the case transferred to the Richard J. Daley Center, 50 West Washington Street, Chicago, IL 60602. Such a transfer shall not be deemed an exercise of statutory rights for Substitution of Judge. You must file a district transfer form with your appearance in order to have the case transferred to the Daley Center. You cannot file a district transfer form after you have filed your appearance. Once you properly file your district transfer form, your case will be automatically transferred to the Daley Center where it will be randomly assigned to a judge.
The complexity of the case, the potential issues or problems that the other party will bring up about you, and the likelihood that the other party may obtain an attorney should be factors that you think about before deciding if you should represent yourself. Obviously, the more difficult or complex the case, the harder it would be for a pro se person to win the case.
It is much more difficult to represent yourself when the opposing side is represented by an attorney who is trained in court procedures and rules. An attorney is much more likely to file papers asking the judge to strike your pleadings if the papers do not conform to what the law requires and can raise objections that may make it hard for you to introduce your evidence to the judge.
1. You need to dress as if you were going to an important function. You need to be on time. If your case is called and you are not present, you can lose the case or your case can be dismissed. While sometimes you may have to wait, you should be early and assume that your case will be called at the time the matter is set for. In some court rooms, even being a few minutes late can have consequences.
2. Make sure that your paperwork meets the legal requirements for a valid complaint. Because you are not an attorney, you need to make sure that your paperwork clearly outlines what you seek from the judge and why you believe that you are entitled to this relief from the court. You can review a sample petition at a law library or by visiting a site that provides legal information to pro se clients like illinoislegalaid.org.
3. Bring your evidence to court and be prepared to present your case on the first court date even if the case may be continued. A court functions on evidence and proof. Judges generally seek more than your testimony to prove that you are entitled to the relief you seek. Proof can include written contracts, receipts or cancelled checks for money that you claim you have paid. In addition, you need to be prepared to respond to the argument that the opposing party will make.
4. When you are in front of the judge, you should speak directly to the judge and not the other party or other party’s attorney. The judge will allow both sides to make arguments. Do not interrupt the opposing party or opposing attorney while they are speaking to the judge. It is important to remain calm and wait for your turn to speak. Generally, whatever party brought the motion/petition gets to speak first to the judge and then the other party gets to respond. If more than one person is speaking at the same time, the judge will not be able to hear anyone’s argument. Also, unruly behavior in court can lead to a contempt finding and potential incarceration.
5. When you speak to the judge, be prepared and be concise. The courts are very busy, and you need to focus only on the most important details of your case. Many people provide a lot of unnecessary details that are not relevant to the case. You should introduce yourself to the judge and tell the judge why you are in court. You should try to state your position in two or three sentences. Then you need to listen and respond to what the opposing party (or attorney) is saying.
6. Every time you are in court, you need to review the court order that is written and make sure that the order accurately reflects what happened that day in court and what is going to happen next in the case. If you disagree with what is written in the order, you should try to work out the disagreement with the opposing party. If you cannot resolve the matter, you will need to tell the clerk that you need to talk to the judge to clarify the order. You should ALWAYS take a copy of the court order that is entered when you appear in court.
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