The old adage is that “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Family law by nature is an emotional area of the law – custody, alimony, equitable distribution, visitation, child support – these things impact peoples’ lives. As a result, when a party disagrees with the decision by the trial court, they have the right to appeal. When the Appellate Division issues a published decision, that decision becomes binding on all trial courts in the State. Thus, family law is constantly changing and evolving.
For instance, in a recent unpublished appellate decision, a pro se litigant appealed a post-judgment order relating to alimony and custody. In R.K.B. v. C.W.B., App. Div., decided February 8, 2010, Docket No. A-1613-08T1, a pro se defendant, CWB, appealed from an order that: 1) denied his request for a hearing on custody of the parties’ son; 2) found defendant in violation of litigant’s rights and ordered him to pay plaintiff the sum of $5,000 due as reimbursement alimony; 3) restrained him from discussing court proceedings with his son; and 4) directed him to pay $1,750 to plaintiff as attorney’s fees. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court decision, finding that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion. In addition, the Appellate Court noted that the defendant failed to present sufficient facts to justify a hearing on child custody.
This type of appeal is quite common in family law and like many others, the decision can provide insight and guidance on how to help clients litigate their cases in the future. For instance in R.K.B. v. C.W.B., CWB alleged that there was change of circumstance relating to custody of the parties child. CWB represented, among other things, that because it had been four years since the trial court had determined custody that there was a change of circumstance. The Appellate Division found that mere passage of time and change of the child’s age is not enough to find a change of circumstance or warrant a plenary hearing. (There is other case law out there that says the exact opposite with regard to child support.)
CWB also argued that his child wanted to live with him, as opposed to his mother. Although this may have been true, the trial judge failed to entertain this argument because it was not something CWB could testify to because it could not be supported by “competent, credible evidence.” While the right to appeal exists for all litigants, knowing how to properly file and argue the legal issues in an appeal is an entirely different story.