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6 October 2011

How to get the best out of your family lawyer: my top 10 tips (part 2)

Mahie Abey
If you don’t manage to come to agreement with your ex-partner through solicitor-led negotiation (and most people do) then you may need to go to court. My top ten tips on dealing with the Court environment, again in no particular order, are:

  1. Should you have input into the choice of barrister (if one is instructed)? My instinct would be no. You should have taken pains in choosing your solicitor (see part one of my top ten tips). Your solicitor will have experience of the bar and those barristers that they work well with. As I have mentioned before your legal team is just that - a team - and must be able to work well together. So I would trust your solicitor to choose the barrister that is right for you and your case. Do of course look them up on the internet. If, for example, you feel more comfortable with a woman do say so
  1. What your lawyer wants, in an ideal world, is you on the best possible form at any court hearing. Going to court is a nerve racking experience for most people. If you are going to court for the first time do find out in advance exactly where the court is, how to get there and how long it will take, and where you can park if you’re driving. The last thing you want to do is to be late, which will leave you feeling flustered from the start
  1. Most courts offer a familiarisation visit to make the experience less scary. I have to say none of my clients has ever done this to my knowledge but I can certainly see how it might be of benefit to some. Contact the court if you think this might be helpful for you.
  1. Do you bring a friend or family member with you? This is a difficult one. You may well feel a lot better having a friendly face there but many lawyers really think they get in the way. You are paying a significant sum for professionals to help you in a difficult situation – do you really need your best friend’s input at the same time? I am more relaxed than many on this subject - the best advice is to ask your solicitor what they think. If they think it will hinder them doing their job effectively then it cannot be in your interests
  1. Your solicitor and barrister are likely to both be there at most hearings, especially in more complicated cases. I personally think this is worth the money as I firmly think that the team ethos I have talked about is as important in the court environment as elsewhere. If you have chosen wisely your solicitor and barrister will work together to get you the best result they can, and I think it is a false economy to try to go to court with just your barrister.
  1. One of the most annoying things for any lawyer is when their clients start interrupting them or the other side in court - or worse still making unsolicited comments to the judge. If you do this you will certainly help the other side’s case enormously. You will sidetrack your legal team, so they are not concentrating on presenting your case effectively but on keeping you under control! A definite no-go zone.
  1. Your lawyer, if he or she has any sense, will have advised you that you being  seen to be the most reasonable person in the room will assist your case. Listen to their advice. This will impact on all aspects of your case, from the letters written to the evidence given. The more objectively reasonable you can be (fiendishly difficult I appreciate in the divorce context) the easier you will make it for your legal team to get you the best result.
  1. Remember that judges are human beings. Of course they will listen to the evidence but the impression you make will also be vital. They can see everything you do and they will judge you for it. Be as composed as you can be. Don’t constantly whisper in your solicitor’s ear or make a show of sending them notes. Think about what the judge is seeing and how you would perceive it if you were in his or her shoes.

  1. There are 3 hearings which you might attend: The First Directions Appointment is usually a procedural hearing only; the Financial Dispute Resolution hearing is the best opportunity you will have to settle the case, with non-binding judicial guidance provided; a Final Hearing will take place if you have not managed to settle the case and have to have a decision imposed on you by a judge. Try your very best to avoid a Final Hearing if you can. If you can’t, make sure that you read your own statement carefully before you are due to give your evidence. Also don’t argue with your ex-partner’s barrister when you are being cross examined, and make sure you direct your answers to the judge. He or she is the person who matters. All of these things will help your legal team in the presentation of your case.
  1. Before the Final Hearing ask your lawyer for your own copy of the trial bundle (which will contain all the documents in your case that have been given to the judge). Make sure you have read all the documents. What will assist your lawyer the most at this hearing is you understanding your own case -  and thus being able to give clear and on the ball instructions if and when necessary.