Many parents, grandparents and other family members over the years have shared with us their experience – sometimes positive, often troubling – of their ride on the family law roller-coaster. SPS BLOGS gives individuals the opportunity to share what they felt and what they have learned. All stories are anonymised.
Tony has been involved in the court system since his child was only a few weeks old. He made the decision to represent himself as a Party Litigant because of the cost – his income was too high for legal aid but too low to afford a solicitor.
It was evident that mum just didn’t want me around. She cut all contact after a few brief visits shortly after our child was born. We hadn’t been married. As she refused to add me to the birth certificate I had no rights in the eyes of the law. It seemed once she had a baby my job was done. In fact, I faced the prospect of losing all contact with my child as mum told me she was planning to move to the other end of the country.
Being a proper father to my child was the most important priority in my life. I had to take action quickly and sought advice from various organisations, including Shared Parenting Scotland (SPS). I learned that if I went to court I had a chance of preventing the relocation and gain parental rights which would allow me to play a part in my child’s life.
A local solicitor put together the initial writ, expensive but worth it, as this provided the foundation for my case from then on. I quickly realised that I couldn’t afford to pay a solicitor to represent me in court. I ‘d heard of someone who spent their entire life savings on lawyers and ended up having to represent themselves when they ran out of money. As I was just above the income level to qualify for legal aid, representing myself seemed the only option.
I read the SPS guide to Representing Yourself in Court but it didn’t prepare me for the first hearing. It was horrendous! I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, where I should sit or what I should say. And being the only lay-person in a room full of lawyers in their natural environment made things even more stressful.
I could hardly speak when the sheriff called my case but I somehow got through it and a child welfare hearing was scheduled. I found child welfare hearings easier to deal with as they are far less formal and it’s only the sheriff, the parties and opposing solicitor present. We had a number of these, with me learning all the time how to present my argument to the sheriff and deal with objections from my ex’s solicitor.
I had to try and detach myself from the emotion of the situation to allow me to concentrate on everything that was going on. That was really difficult as my ex brought our child to the first few hearings. The first time I saw my baby in over 8 weeks was in the waiting area of the court, a gut-wrenching experience.
My case ended up going to Proof, a formal affair that hears evidence under oath from witnesses in person. Representing myself, I had the strange experience of asking my ex questions in the witness box. She ran rings round me and I was exhausted by the end of the first day. After a 5 month delay due to the Covid lockdown, and hours spent researching other cases, I was better prepared for the second day of evidence. The sheriff allowed me some leeway with procedural and paperwork errors and occasionally gave me a bit of a steer on asking questions. There were definitely allowances made for the fact I was appearing without a solicitor.
After a long wait of several months the sheriff’s judgment went in my favour. The relocation was stopped. The court also granted me limited contact which allowed me to continue forming a strong bond with my child.
With my growing confidence that I could cope with the legal process, I decided to take my case back to court after 10 months and ask for more contact to build on what we had. Mum had refused point blank to increase contact after that first decision and tried everything she could to reduce it. I have learned to ignore her vile, unfounded accusations and not breathe life into them in court. I try to remain calm and focus on building the best relationship I can with my child, using the skills I’ve learned from the SPS training courses. I’ve recently been granted overnight contact, something I’ve argued long and hard for. My child can now enjoy the normal family activities without me always having to watch the clock.
I’ve come a long way since that first day in court but it has taken its toll. There were lengthy periods where I didn’t sleep well, lying awake at night, running through what I needed to say in court to give the sheriff the best chance to see the whole picture from my child’s perspective. There were the days before a hearing, agonising over written submissions and dreading the day itself. Thankfully, I’m now coping better with the pressures of self-representing, and the joy I get from having my child in my life has made every step of the journey worthwhile. It’s clear to see how much my child loves spending time with me.
My child and I wouldn’t have made it to where we are now without the help and support of friends, family and SPS. They’ve been on hand constantly, helping me to focus on what’s best for my child and guiding me through never-ending challenges. The advice I’ve been given by the solicitors that attend the SPS monthly meetings has been invaluable in presenting my argument to a series of sheriffs. It’s always a worry when a new face appears on the bench.
Being a party litigant isn’t for everyone. It is hard. For me, it became my life. You have to commit to it. In my opinion, the court system isn’t the best but with the right mindset and guidance, it is possible to navigate your way through it and achieve positive results.
Shared Parenting Scotland response:
As Tony says, representing yourself in court is hard. Shared Parenting Scotland can help a bit, via our published guides, our helpline and by providing a lay supporter to go to court with you and take notes.
But we aren’t content with the current situation – we want court rules to be rewritten in plain language and family courts to be problem-solving rather than adversarial. Separated parents should be helped to reach agreement rather than fight in court. Scottish law considers the welfare of the child as the “paramount consideration” – we suggest that slow and costly court action is rarely the way to promote child welfare.