The California family law system was intended to allow people to handle their own cases without hiring an attorney. To that end, all paperwork filed in the Family Court is required to be on forms available for free on the internet. These documents can be found at www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm. All of the applicable provisions of the law are also available for free on the web. They can also be found on many free websites. There are many self-help articles on the internet explaining the procedures in the family court. In fact, there are no attorneys involved in approximately eighty percent (80%) of all family law cases in California. Representing yourself saves you the cost of attorney’s fees and gives you more control of your own case.
However, these good intentions have not made the family law system user friendly enough to be performed by non-attorneys. For example: 1) It is very difficult to determine what forms you need to file, when they are due, what documents need to be attached, what information needs to be provided, etc., and 2) It is almost impossible for a non-lawyer to determine what the law is and how it applies to the facts of their case. California has thousands of statutes, rules of court, and local rules that could apply to a case, as well as thousands of more court decisions interpreting these laws. The California Evidence Code also limits what information the Court can consider.
We, attorneys, struggle with these issues every day. It takes many years of experience and study just to become skilled enough to navigate the family law system with any measure of competence. People without an attorney stumble through the family court system blindly with no real understanding of what is going on, what they are entitled to, and what are their responsibilities. For those that actually make it through, things are fine until their ex-spouse seeks to challenge the judgment and the shortcomings in their agreement come back to haunt them. That’s when things go really bad and it costs a lot of money to rectify the problems, assuming they can be fixed.
Despite all of these problems, the family law system can work for couples in certain circumstances, e.g., they have very little income, assets, and disputes. Whatever you choose, I highly recommend that you at least speak with an attorney before you decide whether to represent yourself. Everything you have acquired up to this point in life, how much you will either pay or receive in support, when you will see your children, and many other important issues will be decided in your family law case. Paying for a consultation with an attorney to have all of your legal questions answered is a small price to pay considering what is at risk.