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Understanding Legal Language, Concepts and “How-To’s”

A majority of family law cases are filed pro se, which means people are filing in family court and representing themselves without hiring an attorney. The number of pro se filings varies from place to place, and in Gainesville, Alachua County, the pro se family law filings are well over 50%. I imagine as the financial repercussions of the last 18 months and continuing trickle through the economy and as inflation rises, pro se filings will only increase. As more and more people maneuver through the court system pro se, it helps to understand some basic legal language and concepts.

JURISDICTION

This is a big word for a big reason. If the Court does not have jurisdiction, you don’t have a case. Jurisdiction confers power to the Court. If the Court does not have jurisdiction, it has no power or authority and the case gets dismissed. For instance, if you want to file for divorce in Gainesville, or any other place in Florida, the jurisdictional requirement is that you must have lived in Florida for six consecutive months and proof of this residency is usually your driver’s license. This means that Florida has jurisdiction over every divorce involving a party who has lived in Florida for six consecutive months. If you don’t have that six months under your belt, you cannot file for divorce in Florida. One last thing, you cannot waive jurisdiction. The Court has it or it doesn’t and the parties cannot “agree” otherwise.

Do not confuse VENUE with JURISDICTION.

VENUE

In the context of divorce filings, the hard rule of proper venue is to file divorce papers in the county where you last lived together as husband and wife. However, unlike jurisdiction, venue can be waived. For instance, if the parties lived as husband and wife in Alachua County, then separated, and both parties then moved to Columbia County, they can agree to file the divorce papers in Columbia County with no problem

PETITIONER OR RESPONDENT?

The Petitioner is the person who filed the law suit and the Respondent is the person who was served with a lawsuit. The Petitioner generally presents his/her case first at trial or at mediation. when presenting his/her case to the judge or the mediator.

TIME SHARING

In Florida the words “custody” and “primary physical residence” have been nixed in Family Court. The new words are “time sharing,” “parenting plan” and “majority time sharing.” Time sharing is just what it sounds like. How much time with the children will dad get and how much will mom get?

ANSWER

This benign sounding word is very important if you have been served with a lawsuit. Once you are served, you are required to file your ANSWER to the petition within 20 days, including counting the weekends. The Answer is your response to the allegations in the petition and there are three accepted “answers:” Admit the allegation, deny the allegation, or state that you are without personal knowledge of the allegation.

CASE STYLE

The “Case Style” is the top of the first page of a court document that states what circuit the case was filed in, what county the case was filed in, what the case number is, sometimes it will state the division, and of course it includes the parties names. The case style should be used to identify each document.

SIGNATURE LINE

The signature line should include more than just your signature. Each document filed in court should have a case style and a proper signature line. A proper signature line includes not only your signature, but your printed name, address, phone number and email address, if you are using email. The signature line is at the end of a document.

CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE

All legal documents should contain a certificate of service, which states that you have a provided a copy of the document to the opposing party or attorney, including names, address, email, how it was sent, and the date it was sent.

EX PARTE COMMUNICATIONS

Most pro se people do not know that you cannot have private conversations with the judge about the facts of the case. The best rule to follow is that all communications with the judge’s office should include all parties to a case and all communications with the judge outside of court should be administrative in nature, as an example, emailing the judge to get court dates, or emailing the judge with a courtesy copy of a motion.

MOTIONS

A motion is a written request for the court to do something about a particular problem and there are innumerable different kinds of motions. The most common motions are Motions for Default if a Respondent failed to file an answer on time, Motion for Contempt and Sanctions is a very common motion where the problem is failure to follow a court order, another common motion is a Motion to Compel the other party to follow the rules. As with all court papers, the motion should include the case style, signature line and certificate of service.

It can be a scary thing to represent yourself in court. A little knowledge goes a long way in reducing that fear and anxiety.