Standing up for yourself: tips for self-represented litigants

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If you are planning to represent yourself in the Family Court, and are wondering where to start, read on.

The Court staff and Judge will do their best to help you through the process, but you will get a better hearing if you take some time to find out what is relevant to the application being made, and limit your evidence to what is relevant. Don’t be afraid to ask for some help, get some help to deal with your own emotions, and check out the following tips to help you put your best foot forward.

Get some upfront advice

 It can help your case enormously to get at least some initial advice from a lawyer- you don’t have to go on and have that lawyer act for you in Court.  When you understand how the processes work, and how the Judge will work through the issues you will have a better chance at being able to effectively present your case to the Family Court.

Get some help to deal with your own stress

Everyone going through the Family Court needs support to deal with the stress and emotions of their case.  If you are representing yourself that is doubly important.  A counsellor will help you to deal with your emotions so you can focus on your case when you get to Court.

There are also Kaiārahi (Family Court navigators) at the Family Court who can help you by providing information and support but do not give legal advice.

Filing Documents

If you are going to the Family Court then you have either made an application or been served with an application made by someone else.

If you have been served with an application, firstly, you will need to write and file the formal documents that stop the process and give you the right to be heard. In these documents you need to include what your position is on whatever is asked of the court. This is a technical document to put you on the record as opposing whatever proceedings are already issued against you. There will be time limits, if you do not get these documents into court on time, you may lose your right to be heard on the matters contained in the document.

There are rules about the layout and content of documents.  The Family Court has a lot of power to disregard mistakes and breaches to the rules on the layout of the document. However, if you can find out, either through some of the links below and/or initial legal advice what the document should look like and get it right, this will help your reputation as a self-represented litigant.

In a scenario where you are responding to proceedings already issued against you, the document that is needed is usually a Notice of Opposition. Then your second document will be an affidavit in response which should answer the allegations already presented to the Court by the other party.


Affidavits are documents that you write setting out the evidence you have to offer in support of your application, or your notice of opposition.[1]  You will need to swear or affirm the truth of your affidavit before a JP, Court Registrar or lawyer before you file it.

When you prepare your affidavit, know that you will be judged by what you say and how you say it. Once the court has accepted your Notice of Opposition or Application, the issue becomes what evidence is before the court, and this will be what is contained in your affidavit.

Your affidavit should only include statements of fact that are relevant to the proceedings filed against you. Do not go on a rant, set out your grievances with how the relationship ended or give statements of opinion about the people making allegations against you, except to give contrary evidence about who you are as a person.

Judge de Jong reiterates that the first step in drafting an affidavit is “to look at what it is that you are applying for and what you need to support that. People forget what it is that they are applying for and that’s how they include a whole lot of information that is irrelevant”. Find out the elements required for your application/defence – your affidavit needs to have those key elements in it.

Try to structure your affidavit in the following way:

  • If you are responding to an application, begin with your position in response, methodically and chronologically work through each allegation that the other side has said in their affidavit.
  • Include information on whether you dispute what they have stated and include some details of what happened from your perspective that you want the court to take into account.
  • If you are making an application, know the necessary elements, map out a logical plan for setting out the information that is relevant.

If you have something important to say, say it. But, you will be judged in part by what you say and how you say it.  If you want to be taken seriously, make a serious effort to get your documents right and to make their content something that’s deserving of respect for you.

Where to find templates and forms

 You can find details of the documents/forms a self-litigant will need to file on the MOJ/Family court website or available at the family court registry, including templates for notices of response and affidavits.  There are other templates included in legislation such as (for relationship property proceedings) the schedules to the Property (Relationships) Act 1976.

 Advice from a Judge: when you are in the Court Room

Once you get to your Court date, head to the Family Court and check the Court room on the list of cases being heard that day.

Once you get to Court, self-represented litigants should expect to be seated at a table and be invited to speak when it is appropriate. You should stand whilst speaking to a Judge because it shows that you have the floor and no one can interrupt you whilst you are having your say. When you are addressing a Judge in the Court you should call them Sir or Ma’am.

Judge de Jong explains “most Judges will begin the Court event by explaining what is happening and making sure that everybody gets a turn to speak.  So it is important when other people are speaking that you don’t interrupt them because it can look as though you are being disrespectful”.

If you are unsure about what a Judge has said, you can politely ask the Judge to clarify what they have said when it is your time to speak.

Consider alternatives to Court Action

Going to Court means putting your life in the hands of someone who has never met you before, and who despite their best efforts can only do their best to understand your family and its needs.  It puts great stress on you and on the other parent so it is very important that you have exhausted all other options for resolving the dispute together.  If you have tried and failed to resolve it on your own, consider getting help from a lawyer to try and avoid Court.

Top tips for making a Family Court application 

  • Attend a Parenting Through Separation course.
  • Try Family Dispute Resolution before going to Court (subsidised mediation with a counsellor).
  • Know the COCA principles – a child’s welfare and best interests are the paramount consideration.
  • See a family lawyer for some initial advice on your application and the evidence you need to file.
  • Before you file any documents be clear on what is and isn’t relevant to your application.
  • Conduct yourself respectfully in Court – standing and speaking when instructed, not interrupting others, and appropriately addressing the Judge.
  • Affidavits are not therapy. In your affidavit only include information that is factual and relevant.
  • Get personal support to deal with your own stress and emotions from a counsellor.
  • Check out the internet resources through the Ministry for Justice website.

Henderson Reeves are your local lawyers, and we are here to help.  Phone us on 09 281 3723.

Listen to our Divorce Café podcast or or view via Youtube to hear the latest episode – a chat with Family Court Judge Lex de Jong for more insights into the Family Court process.

 Internet Resources

The below websites and groups are excellent resources to learn what is involved with the self-representation process in the Family Court.

Internet resources on legal aid

Below is the link to information on Kaiārahi – Family Court navigators

Parenting through separation

Family Dispute Resolution (FDR)

Principles of the Care of Children Act 2004 (COCA)

[1] Information on Affidavits

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