Family Court and Counsel FAQ
Family court is obviously the place where people address family legal matters. These courts cover a wide range of cases with quite different qualities, some of which overlap with other areas of the law.
There are happy matters like adoptions and sadder stories like divorce, but all family law matters have one thing in common. The people involved are emotional, even more so than in other types of cases arising in criminal or injury law.
Family law is determined by both federal and state statutes and is a vast topic that is difficult to address generally. State laws vary and your substantive questions will depend on the issues you are addressing in court and the details of your case. To make informed decisions, you really should speak to a lawyer. But here are some basics about family court.
The following are answers to some basic questions about family court legal representation:
- What specific types of cases do family courts handle? Family courts handle all legal matters having to do with family life. This includes divorce and child custody but also adoption, marriage, cohabitation, reproductive rights, parental rights, guardianship issues and more. Family court cases often even have overlap with criminal cases when abuse or similar issues are at stake -- for example, a spouse who violates a restraining order issued during divorce proceedings may be charged criminally and this will of course influence the family matter.
- Do I have a right to representation? You have a right to be represented by a lawyer in a family law matter but you are not constitutionally entitled to an attorney as is the case when a defendant is accused of a crime by the state. What that means is that you will not be appointed counsel by the government if you are indigent, as in criminal cases. You will have to pay for family court representation. Not all cases require an attorney to file them, though. A simple uncontested divorce can be done independently with some help from court services.
- Is there any help available? Most courts do have guidance on filing cases independently and you can find the information online or at the local courthouse. Some courts have extensive resources available and even people whose job it is to help the unrepresented with their questions. But there are limits to how much time even the most dedicated clerk can devote to working on your case, so use these resources as jumping off points for your research but don't expect help-desk representatives to do the work of a lawyer. It should also be noted that many courthouse staff members are not attorneys and are unable to provide any legal advice, even if they can explain which forms to file.
Consult With Counsel
If you have a family law matter of any kind, whether a sad split or a hopeful addition to your family through adoption, talk to a few lawyers. Tell your story and get a sense of who is best suited to help you. Many attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.