Many litigants choose to represent themselves in their legal proceedings for a number of reasons. Whether they are unable to find a lawyer in time for a court hearing or they prefer to control their own case, some people to do so. Courts recognize this and are patient with these “pro se” parties who are unfamiliar with the law or the way that the legal process works. The law is generous when it comes to non-lawyer parties who are not familiar with certain court rules that may be foreign or not obvious. A New Jersey Appellate Court recently looked at a case where the trial judge did not extend this practice to a pro se litigant.
In M.D.C. v. J.A.C. two parties were involved in a domestic violence dispute and the plaintiff sought a final restraining order (FRO), after obtaining a temporary restraining order (TRO) when the defendant committed assault and made terroristic threats.
The trial judge who presided over the FRO hearing denied an adjournment of the FRO hearing by the defendant woman. She filed an appeal that her due process rights were violated when the judge did not inform her of the right to postpone the hearing so that her mother could appear as a witness – and further denied evidence that she presented.
At the start of the FRO trial, the defendant woman told the judge that she wanted to present her mother as a witness for the case, but she was unavailable. She asked if she could then read a statement from her mother in lieu of her live testimony. The judge responded that the court would not consider testimony from witnesses who were not there in court.
It is settled law that a trial court should advise parties of their right to an adjournment of the trial to call the necessary witnesses. It is especially important when someone is a pro se party. The Appellate Court held that because of this, the judge should have treated her explanation of her mother’s absence as the equivalent to a request for an adjournment.
The Appeals Court also highlighted other instances where the trial judge did not give weight to defendant’s self-representation. When defendant cross-examined plaintiff on the witness stand, the judge repeatedly interrupted her and questioned the relevance of the questions she asked. The judge should have granted her more leeway in her cross-examination, understanding that she was unfamiliar with the nature of appropriate questions on a cross examination. The defendant also had videos of plaintiff committing acts of self-harm herself (i.e. showing that the injuries presented were not inflicted by defendant). The judge denied this evidence and did not give any reason to the defendant. The Appellate Court agreed reversed the trial judge’s decision on this also.
The Appellate Court’s decision turned on the defendant’s self-representation. It said that “[a] judge in a domestic violence trial, where the parties are unrepresented and unfamiliar with the proceeding, should exercise a ‘high degree of patience and care.'”