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Going to court is a serious and formal process. If you are considering it, find out about the process so that you are well informed.

If you do not have a legal representative, you will have to manage the process by yourself.

The Department of Justice of Northern Ireland has provided some information for people who go to court without a lawyer - see Information for Litigants in Person.

Do I need a legal representative?

Most family cases in Northern Ireland have two legal representatives, usually solicitors - one representing the applicant and the other representing the respondent.

In some family cases, the solicitor may hire a barrister to represent the party and the barrister will attend the hearings either instead of - or as well as - the solicitor. In cases at the High Court in Northern Ireland, it is usual for barristers to represent cases in the court instructed by the solicitor.

If you think you might be entitled to financial support to pay for legal services – known as legal aid – you can ask a solicitor to find out. You cannot apply for legal aid yourself, but a solicitor can apply on your behalf. See NI Direct Legal Aid Schemes.

Self-represent or hire a legal representative?

You do not have to have a legal representative. You can represent yourself and will be known as a personal litigant or a litigant in person, or as someone who is self-representing.

However, representing yourself at court is not easy where the case involves your child and strong personal feelings and emotions.

  • Hiring a legal representative

    A family law solicitor will be familiar with the legal process for sorting out the arrangements for a child in the family court.

    The process can be complicated and daunting, and the services of a solicitor can protect you from much of the burden and stress of going to court.

    Your solicitor should be able to understand your circumstances and advise you on different options, including reaching an agreement without going to court. Solicitors are experienced in family cases and working with clients who are experiencing stressful points in their relationship and home life.

    A solicitor can help you to understand the law and procedures, give you clear advice and make the change in your circumstances less bewildering. Many will understand your position and be able to advise on the strengths and weaknesses of your case.

    The Law Society of Northern Ireland has a directory of family solicitors in Northern Ireland.

    If you think you might be entitled to financial support to pay for legal services – known as legal aid – you can ask a solicitor to find out. You cannot apply for legal aid yourself, but a solicitor can apply on your behalf.

  • Self-representing

    If you decide to represent yourself, do it with your eyes open. The system at the moment is not very well suited for people who are representing themselves.

    People who represent themselves are frequently referred to as litigants in person (LIPs) or personal litigants.

    Speaking in court

    It may seem unbalanced and unfair if one parent has a lawyer and the other does not. It is important to remember that it is the role of the judge to make sure both parties have an equal opportunity to give their views and arguments to the judge so they can make an informed decision.

    This does not mean that a person representing themselves has to act like a lawyer. It is up to the judge to make sure that parties can participate in the hearing so that they can present their case.

    Preparing and managing your case

    It is important you prepare for your court case as much as you can if you are self-representing.

    The information in this website describes the process of a case at the family court and what is expected of you at each stage of the process and how to prepare. It does not give legal advice – it does not tell you which Order to apply for, what arguments to make, what to say to the judge.

    Communicating with other party's legal representative

    If the other party is represented you will have to communicate with their legal representative. That means you may have to send the relevant documents to them, respond to their requests for documents and speak to them outside of court hearings.

    Communications between the legal representatives of the other party and LIPs should be courteous and professional.

    More on what it's like to self-represent

    The Litigants in Person in Northern Ireland project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, looked at people's experiences of going to court without a lawyer. You can find out more about what it is like to self-represent from our Videos on Litigant in Person research.

Get advice

If you are considering representing yourself in a family case, you should look for guidance or advice. For example, look for advice from a legally trained adviser, such as a solicitor. This website lays out only some of the procedures in a family case.

No two cases are the same, so it is important to get advice if you cannot find the information you are looking for.

There are not many organisations in Northern Ireland that give advice about self-representing in the family court. Some advice agencies give general advice but very few give advice about self-representing in family law cases.

If you look online for advice, it can be easy to find advice from England & Wales but the rules and procedures are different to Northern Ireland.

Also, check out the relevance of the advice you are reading. Some websites may take a point of view that is not relevant to your situation. Always remember that the arrangements you are planning for your child must put them first.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland has a directory of solicitors.

Some organisations offer some support for people representing themselves:

The staff of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS)

The staff of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) are not lawyers and they have to remain neutral.

They cannot give legal advice or advice about how to represent yourself. They will try and help with queries but can only give basic information about the court processes. See Court staff for more about their role.

Contacting the court office

If you have a query, you can check this website, including our Pathfinder tool. If this does not help, then you can email the court office with the query. Bear in mind that Court offices are busy and it may take a few days for someone to reply to you.

If you need to call to the court office, for example to collect a copy of an order, you should arrange this in advance and bring identification.

See here for contact details of the courts in Northern Ireland - see NICTS contact details or Court office emails.

Get Support - McKenzie Friend

Some organisations which support families or parents can help you prepare your proceedings or you can ask a friend or family member for support.

If the judge in your case allows someone to accompany you in court, this person is called a 'McKenzie Friend.' There is no dedicated service for this type of support.

Ask the judge for permission

You can ask the judge if the person who is supporting you can be your McKenzie Friend and accompany you in court. If the judge permits, a McKenzie Friend can attend the hearing with you for support, to remind you of relevant points and take notes during the hearing. They cannot behave like a lawyer and they cannot speak for you in court.

McKenzie Friend at your hearing

If you want a McKenzie Friend to attend your hearing, you will need permission from the judge. You should state this in your application or ask the judge directly during the first directions hearing.

The judge might ask you for information about your McKenzie Friend, so it may be useful to have available their CV and a written explanation of why you need their help.

If the judge agrees to allow your McKenzie Friend to attend your hearings, it will be your responsibility to pass on to them the details, including the link if it is a remote hearing. If your McKenzie Friend is attending a hearing, make sure they can be available for several hours in case it is delayed or goes on for longer than expected.

McKenzie Friends, like all parties in a family case, must respect the privacy of the proceedings.

Role of the McKenzie Friend

There is a McKenzie Friends Practice Direction which sets out what a McKenzie Friend may and may not do to assist you in your case. The McKenzie Friend may be asked to provide information to the court and the judge may use this to decide whether they can assist you in your case.

In exceptional circumstances, a McKenzie Friend may be granted the ‘rights of audience’. This means they will be allowed to speak in a hearing on your behalf or they may be allowed to conduct litigation on your behalf. This will be up to the judge to decide.