Unlike criminal defendants, family court litigants are not guaranteed the right to counsel, which means that they have the choice of hiring an attorney, or representing themselves. The act of representing yourself in a court proceeding is known as “pro se”, a Latin phrase that translates as “for oneself” or “on one's own behalf”. The decision to represent oneself is dependent on the type of case, personal circumstances and financial constraints, but the New Jersey courts strongly recommend that you at least consult an attorney for advice.
Regardless of how you choose to be represented in court, you are still entitled to fair treatment by the courts during the course of a legal proceeding. This right, known as “due process”, is guaranteed to all litigants under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment. Pro se litigants being denied their due process rights has been a long-standing legal dilemma, particularly in non-criminal proceedings in which the defendant is not facing jail time. While incarceration is arguably the most serious penalty you can face under NJ law, all legal sanctions have serious ramifications, including financial hardship and job loss. With that in mind, it's essential that each party is given reasonable notice to attend a hearing, and be given the opportunity to question witnesses and present their side of the story.
The sanctity of the due process clause can be seen in cases like C.H. v. J.S., in which a restraining order was vacated due to lack of evidence, as well as procedures during the original trial that violated the defendant's right to due process. In its ruling, the Appellate Division stated, “It is clear from this hearing transcript defendant was not given the chance to meaningfully respond to plaintiff's allegations and was never permitted to present evidence, including witnesses or documents he believed supported his defense.”
Furthermore, the appellate court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support the plaintiff's claim of criminal harassment to begin with. According to the trial transcript, the defendant did not deny sending the plaintiff a series of messages that hinted at the possibility of posting privates videos of her online. He insisted, however, that he would never have done so, and only sent the messages out of hurt and anger, after the plaintiff had broken up with him for the third time. The court admonished the trial judge for accepting this as an admission of guilt, rather than giving the defendant a chance to present evidence, and/or witnesses prior to issuing a final restraining order. As you can see, the courts insist on the preservation of one's due process rights, even for non-criminal matters such as the issuance of a restraining order. If you believe that you have been denied fair treatment by the courts, it's imperative that you speak to an experienced attorney about your rights and legal options. For more information on your due process rights, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.