Lorna Tipple, a solicitor at West Midlands law firm Harrison Clark, considers the pitfalls of representing yourself at court.
There has been widespread publicity about Heather Mills's decision to represent herself for the conclusion of the financial proceedings between her and Sir Paul McCartney.
It is an unusual step in such a high-profile, high-asset case but arguably slightly more common in other, more modest hearings.
Perhaps a reduction in the availability of public funding and concerns over potential legal costs are the main reasons why people may decide not to instruct a solicitor and instead choose to go it alone.
However, a health warning should be issued to those considering this course of action.
Knowledge is power and without it you are in a very weak position.
An experienced matrimonial lawyer will, if at all possible, keep their clients away from the doors of the court.
There are many options available which should be considered and attempted before proceedings are issued. These include voluntary disclosure of assets followed by negotiation, sometimes with the benefit of a round table meeting, collaborative law and mediation.
It is difficult to attempt these options where the other side represents themselves, as often they are unable to set the emotional aspect of the matter to one side. In those cases where court proceedings are necessary, very few actually reach a final hearing and instead settle at a much earlier stage.
An unrepresented party - known as a litigant in person - is likely to fall foul of a number of pitfalls.
They may have very strong views on what they consider to be 'just' or morally right in their case. However, the court is required to take into account a number of factors.
Coupled with the minefield of the law, there are many procedural rules that the court will expect parties to adhere to. In preliminary hearings, directions are given by the court in order to progress the case and quite often an unrepresented party will not appreciate the remit or purpose of the interim hearing or the necessity for the directions.
If you choose to act for yourself, you will be up against a solicitor. This clearly puts the litigant in person at a disadvantage. In the court hearing it can be a solicitor or barrister - trained and experienced in advocacy both in terms of procedure and legal argument. An opponent acting alone will struggle to deal with such matters.
A litigant in person, particularly in family proceedings, is often far too emotionally involved with, what is after all, their case. Without objectivity and advice as to what the law actually is, as opposed to what they consider the law should be, an unrepresented party is on the back foot.
There is a positive duty on the legal profession to attempt to settle matters if at all possible, avoiding further court hearings and expense. However, it is often the case that where there is a litigant in person involved, early settlement is unlikely and matters often progress to a final hearing.
The determination of the matter is in then in the judge's hands and an order could well be made which neither party is happy with.
Also, if litigation has been continued unreasonably or unnecessarily by the litigant in person, they may be at risk of having a costs order made against them for some or all of their opponent's costs. Similarly if an unrepresented party does not attend a hearing, a costs order may be applied for and a substantive order potentially made in their absence.
At a final hearing a judge will listen to and consider the evidence before making a decision on how the assets should be split. A judge's role in these two hearings is often made more difficult when dealing with litigants in person. They cannot advise or assist people in presenting or dealing with their case, but are often required to explain procedural aspects in more detail. This takes up more court time and can often put a judge in a difficult position.
Another important point that a would-be litigant in person should bear in mind, is what message acting for yourself sends out?
No matter how it is considered, the initial thoughts are negative - are you not taking the proceedings seriously? Are you trying to be un-co-operative and difficult? Do you have something to hide? Are you obsessed with the litigation and not able to take advice? Are you unwilling to consider a compromise?
Those who choose to represent themselves will quite often instruct a solicitor when they actually appreciate the complexity and seriousness of the proceedings.
It is therefore much more advisable to seek legal advice from the outset.
These proceedings will have a significant impact upon your future and it is vital that you deal with them properly.