Self-represenatation in family proceedings is difficult. Many litigants in person, or ‘self-reppers’ find it hard to fund legal advice from a family specialist. This is particularly so where the only dispute may be about an income claim such as child support because it is not as if you may recover a valuable asset or receive a lump sum out of which you can repay your legal fees at a later date.
When faced with a self-repper, a family solicitor (who, we must remember is an officer of the court) should try to assist the litigant in person to understand the process or the proposal being made. This is not to say, that the solicitor must advise the self-repper: they cannot do that as it would be a conflict of interest with their role as an advisor to their own client.
I have a great deal of sympathy for self-reppers, as may be evident for any regular readers of this blog. When facing them in court I go out of my way to be courteous and helpful, mindful always of the stressful nature of the proceedings in which we are all involved. I have sometimes had self-reppers throw doubt upon my parentage, but I don’t mind as I know, in most cases, it is just the pressure of the situation getting to them.
Unfortunately, this pressure of the occasion at court can cloud the judgment or even hinder the understanding of self-reppers. This is presuming of course, that the lawyer on the other side of the self-repper and the judge have sufficiently explained the situation to the self-repper. This is the subject of a recent enquiry from a ‘troubled mum':
My son settled in court to pay a woman he had a one night stand with £750.00 per month. This was at a stage 2 meeting. My son had to represent himself because he could not afford the legal fees. The barrister representing the applicant explained the order was a “christmas Order” which meant it could be looked at again if my son were to win the lottery or found himself without a job ( I was there I heard the barrister say this) We now have received a typed up copy of the court order that we agreed on the 3rd May to let a legal person look at it. We have been informed the words “Christmas Order” means it automatically goes up each year which we were definately not informed that this was the case. Can we ask the court to take out that clause because we were informed wrongly of its meaning please help this is a nightmare regards very troubled mum
As ever, with many of the enquiries I receive, I do not have all of the detail but my initial thoughts are as follows:
- I wonder why this matter was not dealt with by the CSA. The child’s mother could simply have referred the case to the CSA to make a maintenance assessment and fix the amount of child support. No need for her to pay for a barrister (unless she had public funding – or legal aid).
- Since the CSA were not involved I am presuming the case before the family court was under Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 which can provide for financial orders between unmarried parents for the benefit of their biological child. Such orders usually being:
- Periodical payments (or child support)
- lump sum orders (there can be more than one)
- a property adjustment order (the provision of a house for the child and mother to live in) although the property will in most cases revert back to the father when the child reaches the age of majority.
- If this case was being brought under Schedule I Children Act proceedings, then the father in this case could have referred himself to the CSA and the family court would no longer have the ability to make a periodical payments order. The family court could still have made a lump sum order or a property adjustment order but whether the father had the financial means to meet such orders is not mentioned in the enquiry. I suspect not.
- The father has agreed (remember that the family court can only approve a child support order if it is with the consent of both parents) to a ‘Christmas Order’. I have used such orders before but from memory I have only done so when my client’s spouse or partner has had legal representation. This is because the Christmas Order attempts to oust the jurisdiction of the CSA (which, technically speaking, is against public policy). Readers of this blog may remember that a court-approved child support order may only have a shelf life of just over 12 months because either parent can then refer the case to the CSA to take over and the family court order bites the dust. A ‘Christmas Order’ is designed to automatically renew itself just before the 12 month period lapses so it is as if a new order is born out of the ashes of the preceding order each year. Because the order never quite gets to be one year old before being renewed each year the CSA never gets to have jurisdiction. The month of automatic renewal is usually December: hence the Christmas connection. Clever. Unless you did not understand what you were signing up to.
- A Christmas Order can be quite helpful in some circumstances but, as I mentioned earlier, I am troubled if the father of this child did not have a clear understanding of what he was agreeing to. Without his consent this order could not have been made. Even if the barrister had not explained it clearly enough, I would have thought the judge, who approved the order, would have explained very clearly to the father what the Christmas Order entailed. After, all it is an unusual order so the burden upon the barrister and the judge to assist the self-repper in this case is, in my view, even higher than normal.
- The ‘troubled mum’ behind this enquiry and her son then consulted a ‘legal person’ with the result being: “We have been informed the words “Christmas Order” means it automatically goes up each year”. That’s not right. The Christmas Order operates as I have explained above: it automatically renews itself each year in such a way as to prevent the CSA having jurisdiction. It would only go up in value each year if there was a specific clause saying that it will increase in value. The normal mechanism for this to happen is to link the child support payments to the increase in the Retail Prices Index (RPI). I have tried to explain how this operates in a number of posts on this blog. Again, I am troubled if the father in this case did not know he was agreeing to an automatic increase in the value of the payments each year. Don’t get me wrong, I think such automatic increases can be a good thing but it is essential that all the parties (especially self-reppers) understand what they are agreeing to.)
Although I must reiterate again that I cannot advise anybody on the pages of this blog, one option open to the father is an appeal against the court order. It will be an appeal against a consent order which makes it difficult to say the least but it may be worth a try if the father is certain that the order was not explained to him by the judge and that if it had been explained to him, he would not have agreed to it. The guidance for making such an appeal is here. However, the usual time period for making such an appeal is 21 days from the date of the order so that time period has already passed. It is, however, still possible to make the application to appeal (out of time) and the father may be given more leeway because he is unrepresented.
BUT: remember that such an order is variable. That is, if there is a significant change in the father’s circumstances such as the loss of a job or a significant pay cut then it is possible to have the amount of the maintenance varied downwards on an application back to the family court. At the same time the court could be asked to simply drop the automatic renewal (the Christmas Order) aspect of the child support so that it could, if either parent wanted to, fall back within the jurisdiction of the CSA in the future.
My inclination, if this father needed to vary the order in the future, would be to invite the mother of this child to mediation. Much less stressful than contested proceedings.