A lot of times, if you’re just filing for custody, visitation, child support, or spousal support, you’re going to start out at the juvenile court level. If you’re not currently pursuing divorce, but these issues are currently unresolved, the juvenile court is really the only forum you have available to you.
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to dealing with the juvenile court, but the most positive thing I can say on the good side is that anything that happens in the juvenile court is automatically appealable to circuit court. Obviously, that gives you a lot more flexibility.
I don’t want to appeal to the circuit court! I just want to get this done in the juvenile court.
Well, obviously. No one really WANTS to appeal; we all want to get our way the first time, without the added hassle of time and expense involved in appealing a case to a higher court. Still, I tell you this because it’s a great feature of the juvenile court. It means that, if you choose, you can go into the juvenile court without hiring an attorney. Because, if you lose, you can still appeal the ruling from the juvenile court up to the circuit court later.
For lots of people, the expense of hiring an attorney is daunting. They want to see whether they can handle their case themselves. In Virginia, as you probably already know, there is no rule against representing yourself in a divorce or custody case, but there’s no doubt that it is way, way, way easier to do so at the juvenile court level than the circuit court. Being able to appeal is good, but there’s no question that the juvenile court is also less formal and more user friendly, especially for non lawyers with very little in court experience.
That being said, though, like any court, it’s not but so user friendly. The clerks, judges, magistrates and others you might run into won’t give you any legal help; they can’t (after all, they aren’t attorneys) even if they want to. They may point you in the direction of the law library, but there’s not a whole lot they can do to help you get your case heard the way you want. So, if you plan to litigate your own case (at the juvenile court level or any other level), you’ll need to do your research and prepare as well as possible ahead of time.
Still, the fact that you can appeal is a big factor in your favor, especially if you’re thinking that you’d at least like to give it a go without hiring an attorney to start out. After all, even if you did hire an attorney, if your child’s father lost, he could appeal, too—and then you’d pay the attorney to try your case at the juvenile court and then again at the circuit court level.
What happens when you appeal? Doesn’t the stuff from the juvenile court hearing come up and poison the judge against you?
When you appeal to the circuit court from the juvenile court, your appeal is de novo, which means that you get a brand new hearing. None of the information from the previous hearing makes its way up to the judge at the circuit court, so you’re getting a fresh set of eyes and ears on your facts. Then, the judge can affirm the ruling, reverse the ruling (in part or in whole), or remand it back to the juvenile court to re-consider in light of new or, in the judge’s opinion, probative facts.
Will my case be handled better if I hire an attorney?
Well, it’s certainly possible. Attorneys are awesome for all sorts of reasons (but I’m biased, of course), but chiefly because they are familiar with the laws, the local courts, and the judges. Depending on the facts associated with your case, they have a wealth of knowledge to draw on when it comes to preparing a case strategy—knowledge that you, smart as you are, probably don’t have (and can’t get access to). It’s not like this is the type of knowledge that you can research in the law library.
That being said, though, if yours is a relatively simple case (like child support, for example) you may want to handle it yourself. Juvenile court judges are often more friendly to pro se litigants (people representing themselves without attorneys), so you may find that your judge is pretty indulgent when it comes to enforcing the rules of the court.
If I were you, though, I think I’d talk to an attorney first, just to get a handle on how easy or complicated my case would be. For a woman wanting to relocate away from dad with the kids, you’ll probably want to hire an attorney if you plan to pursue this type of case. On the other hand, a simple calculation of child support (or modification of an older child support calculation) is a pretty easy case to take on yourself. You don’t have to retain an attorney to come in and ask a couple of questions; it’s just a matter of a consult fee, and then you’ll be able to make the best decisions possible.
What if I lose at the juvenile court level? Do I have to hire an attorney?
You don’t have to hire an attorney at the circuit court level, either, if you don’t want to. But there’s a little more at stake here, because you can’t automatically appeal to the next court if you get a result you don’t like. You can’t say, “I want a do over because I didn’t have an attorney!” at that point; you just have to live with the result.
After the circuit court, the next step is the Virginia Court of Appeals. To get to the Court of Appeals, you’d have to appeal a circuit court ruling, alleging that there’s a mistake of law (not a mistake of fact). What that means is that you’re not appealing because a judge misunderstood some evidence or didn’t get all of the facts straight before making a ruling; you’d have to argue that somehow the judge incorrectly applied the law. It’s a much, much tougher burden to meet and, besides that, going to the Court of Appeals is incredibly time consuming and expensive.
Ultimately, whether you decide to hire an attorney—at any level of the court system—or not is up to you. There’s a lot riding on your case, though, so, whatever your choice, you’ll want to make sure you’re armed with as much information as possible.
For more information about custody cases at the juvenile court level, including how to represent yourself, consider attending Custody Bootcamp for Moms. It’s an intense, all day seminar designed specifically to teach moms what they need to know to handle their own custody, visitation, and child support cases in their local juvenile courts.
If you want more information about custody law and how it is applied in custody cases in Virginia, request a free copy of our book, “The Woman’s Custody Survival Guide.”
If your case is part of an underlying divorce, consider attending our divorce seminar, “What Every Virginia Woman Needs to Know About Divorce.” We teach it three times a month—on the Second Saturday and Third Tuesday of the month—in Virginia Beach and Newport News. Each seminar is taught by one of our licensed Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, too, so you can ask questions if you get suck or don’t understand!
To schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys now, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.