Approximately 70% of divorce cases in California have at least one party who is self-represented, meaning they do not have an attorney. When you appear in a case without an attorney, you will be considered “pro per” which means you are representing yourself and you are your own attorney.
Why are so many people in California self-represented in a divorce case? Money and being able to pay for an attorney is a big factor. Divorcing spouses will often also have one spouse hire an attorney who will handle all the paperwork for an uncontested, agreed upon divorce matter.
Do I need to hire an attorney to get divorced? The simple answer is no, it is not required, and a Court will let you represent yourself in your case. Attorneys are usually not appointed in family law cases. Usually the only time the Court appoints an attorney for a person is when there is a contempt of court charge in a divorce case, and the person defending themselves cannot afford an attorney and requests the Court to appoint a public defender. California also has tried to simplify the legal process for divorce, with mandatory forms being used in Court and available for free online (see Judicial Council website here).
If your divorce is not complicated, and you and your spouse agree on the terms of the divorce, you can prepare your own forms and get a divorce Judgment yourself. If you cannot afford an attorney, many Courts have self-help centers to help you prepare the paperwork needed for your case and will walk you through the process. Many local bar associations may also have contacts for legal aid groups who provide free or low cost legal advice. Judges are also very familiar with self-represented parties appearing in Court, and while they cannot give you legal advice in your case from the bench, it is my experience that most family law Judges are more forgiving of a self-represented party who makes mistakes in their filing papers or in procedural requirements (though you still have to correct mistakes). However, if you are self-represented and your spouse has an attorney in a contested matter, you can easily find yourself in over your head.
There are options besides hiring an attorney to handle your entire case, such as paying an attorney for a limited consultation to advice you in your case or to prepare legal documents for you, or hiring an attorney for a limited scope representation, such as appearing at just one hearing on your behalf. In considering whether or not you can or want to hire an attorney for your divorce matter, some things to think about are the value of your own time trying to figure out the legal requirements of getting divorced, the consequences of making mistakes in your divorce court filings that may delay and/or seriously prejudice your case, and most importantly, understanding what your legal rights and options are in a divorce matter.
I have seen people be able to successfully resolve their divorce matters without hiring an attorney, and I have also had clients come to me at a certain point in their divorce case realizing they cannot do it themselves. Unfortunately, I have also met with people after a divorce Judgment, who were not represented nor sought the counsel of attorney before agreeing to the terms of a divorce, and realized too late they may have given up rights or lost out on property and/or support.
To sum up, when considering self-representation in a divorce matter, ask yourself if you feel capable of handling the matter yourself, and if in doubt, it never hurts to have an initial consultation with a family law attorney to discuss your case.