As you may know, I am a self represented party. This means that when I arrive at the clerk's office to ask a question, I often get a response from a clerk which goes, "I cannot provide legal advice. If you need legal advice, go and get an attorney." Of course, that very same clerk, asked the very same question by a person who is obviously indigent or low income, will freely hand out legal advice. So there is a bit of a class based double standard here.
Be that as it may, it is important for you to know that there is a long standing legal and historical basis for your right to represent yourself rooted in the sixth and fourteenth amendments. So when the opposing attorney attempts to prevent you from representing yourself, and she will if you are in family court, you have a strong basis for defending yourself. Once you have established your right to act as a self represented party, what can you expect from the judicial system?
Basically, in the U.S. judicial system there are two attitudes towards self represented parties. One attitude is that self represented parties have the money but can't be bothered to hire attorneys and so they are absolutely not entitled to any flexibility. The other attitude is that most people would not choose to represent themselves but are doing so because they don't have the money or don't feel they can obtain a proper defense any other way. Connecticut is one of the few states that takes the more benign attitude towards self represented parties and, at least in theory, acts accordingly. As one judge told me, I have a legal obligation to bend over backwards in order to accommodate your needs as a self represented party."
Still, the handout you receive as a self represented party states that, "A self-represented person must abide by the same rules of procedure and the rules of evidence as lawyers. It is the responsibility of self represented parties to determine what needs to be done and to take the necessary action." This is the official position of the judicial system.
However, if the court system actually followed through on this approach literally the whole legal system would collapse, granted that over 50% of parties are self represented and fairly incompetent.
So what gets done to incorporate the unique needs of a self represented party in court while at the same time preserving a represented party's right to a fair and impartial hearing? First, once the judge has determined that there is a self-represented party in the proceedings, he or she may explain the process to the self represented party before proceeding. The judge might say something like "I'm going to hear both sides of the case. The defendant will first explain his case, and you will have a chance to respond. Please do not interrupt the other party when he is presenting his case, etc." In other words, the judge will provide a quick overview of proper courtroom behavior for the self-represented party.
Second, the judge might explain to the self-represented party what are the elements of the case and what is the burden of proof required in order for the self-represented party to prove his or her case. In one situation I was in, the judge had the clerk provide a copy to me of a central ruling which described exactly what I was required to prove in my case. He then told me he was going to call a recess in the hearing so that I could have a chance to review the case and decide whether or how I wished to proceed further.
During a hearing with a self represented party, the judge may cut to the chase and just say "tell me what you have", or "what is your argument" so you can just state your case outright rather than present evidence or examine a witness on the stand in your stumbling and inadequate self represented party manner. Frequently, rather than sit back passively, in a case where there is a self represented party the judge will intervene with his own questions of both you and the witnesses in order to delve into the issues and obtain more information.
Third, particularly in family matters, the court will lower the standards in regard to evidence so that you don't have to establish a foundation for the documents you wish to submit to the court. The other party can object, but frequently they don't since judges can make life difficult for them if they do.
Essentially trial courts are required to accommodate the needs of self represented parties as long as doing so does not infringe upon the rights of the other side. I'm sure that gets to be a pretty difficult line to draw, but my impression is that they interpret the line liberally. Of course, my impression also is that judges will give you all that accommodation and flexibility in court and then return to the office and kind of knee jerk rule on the side of the represented party all in the spirit of attorney-attorney solidarity, but that may just be an impression rather than a reality.
In accordance with a general policy throughout the judicial system in the U.S. the courts in Connecticut will accept any papers submitted by self represented parties and, at least in theory, interpret them as liberally as possible searching them diligently in order to locate anything that might represent a meritorious claim or defense. This means that when I went to civil court, the clerk was ready to accept anything I was going to give them. In fact, the court has a fill in the blank form with the heading "motion" where you can simply write in by hand what you are complaining about and submit it to the court for a hearing.
However, there are limits to the court's liberality. For example, if you miss a deadline, you miss a deadline, just the same as any other attorney. Too bad for you. If a motion you submit to the court requires a fee and must be delivered by a marshall, it requires a fee and must be delivered by a marshall, so don't try to avoid the requirements.
The appellate court simply will not accept documents that are not formated properly. However, if you ask they will give you a break and give you more time to revise them so they meet appellate court requirements. Of course, they would give that very same break to an attorney as well. The appellate court will try to accommodate you by giving you a free copy of their booklet "Handbook of Appellate Procedure" plus an additional free copy of their booklet with sample forms. Also, keep in mind that there is a section of the judicial website which is devoted to providing information for self represented parties at: http://www.jud.ct.gov/lawlib/SRP/default.htm
Still, even though there is all this lip service about the rights of self represented parties, you know that if you are acting as your own counsel, you are a second or even third class citizen. The court will take advantage of the fact that you don't know the law to work injustice. When it came to one of my motions, I had to submit a few "Requests for a Hearing" before the court would schedule my motion for a hearing. This would never happen to an attorney. Attorneys can just call in and demand a continuance on a court hearing and get one. Self represented parties have to go through a song and dance for a continuance. Attorneys can meet the judge in the hallway and have a nice chat. You cannot. So don't be naive. Yes, you are not a lawyer, but you can still make your way through the system and achieve decent results if you keep your cool and follow procedure. I will always believe that a self represented party who is committed, although he or she does not have the skills or connections of a lawyer, will always outdo an attorney who doesn't give a sh_t, and unfortunately most of them don't give a sh_t.
One point I would like to make is that as you represent yourself, do not spend your time on your emotions. The point is, what is the law, and is what you are requesting in compliance with the law. Nothing else matters. If you become emotional and strident, and if you act on the basis that the injustice you are enduring in court is so severe that you have a right to circumvent protocol, you could end up being marginalized, at which point the court will automatically deny anything you ask for, or you could even lose your right to self representation.
So, that is pretty much it. Go forth and conquer...or at least, give it a try!