A Self-Represented Father in a Maryland Custody Case Demonstrated Why Proceeding Without an Attorney is Generally the Wrong Choice

An old saying by English author Alexander Pope theorizes that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” In few places is that more true than in the law. Too many times, non-lawyers sincerely believe that they can pursue their case successfully on their own. They think that, by spending a little time with the Google or Bing search engines, they can equip themselves adequately to act as their own attorney in their Maryland family law dispute.

Very often, they are mistaken. The consequence of that mistake is often losing a case that, with the aid of skilled lawyer, might have possibly ended more favorably. With something as precious and valuable as your family at stake, why would you chance losing due to some statutory technicality, filing deadline or nuance of caselaw that you’d overlooked? Your family is too important, which is why you should be sure you retain a knowledgeable Maryland family law attorney to handle your case.

How can your case go very wrong on your own? A recent dispute addressed by the Court of Special Appeals offers a useful example. O.K. was a father in a dispute with E.L., his children’s mother. On a temporary basis, the court gave the mother sole legal and physical custody.

At a hearing before the trial judge, the father made no arguments, presented no evidence and didn’t even sit at the counsel table in the courtroom. He refused to take an oath or even state his name, participating in no meaningful way other than to dispute the trial court’s jurisdiction to resolve the matter.

That did not work. As an informative note, these types of tactics almost never work. Challenges to a court’s jurisdiction, whether you are contesting personal jurisdiction or subject matter jurisdiction, generally require in-depth knowledge of the relevant statutes, Maryland Court of Special Appeals rulings and Court of Appeals rulings that have addressed the topic of jurisdiction, and an ability to explain, persuasively and in depth, how those things demonstrate that the Maryland courts don’t have jurisdiction over you (personal jurisdiction) or your dispute (subject matter jurisdiction.)

The father’s legal maneuvers on appeal weren’t much better. In one of his points, he argued that the trial judge erroneously terminated his parental rights. Based on what the appeals court discussed in its opinion, there was no indication that the trial court made any such ruling. Giving your child’s other parent sole legal and physical custody of your children is not the same as terminating your parental rights.

Even if the court gives your children’s other parent sole legal and physical custody and denies you visitation (as happened for a time in O.K.’s case,) that’s not the same as a termination of your parental rights. They’re different legal concepts and there are different standards applied to them. In other words, O.K. confused two different legal concepts and his argument was doomed to fail as a result.

Procedural pitfalls can be hazardous to the health of your case

Another major problem that can damage the cases of self-represented spouses or parents is failure to comply with deadlines. Maryland law and Maryland court rules establish deadlines on a great many things, from statutes of limitations for bringing a lawsuit to deadlines for filing appeals. In Maryland, you generally have 30 days to appeal a final order issued by a trial judge. In O.K.’s case, the father filed his notice of appeal on October 25, 2018. While there were two October 2018 orders entered in his case, the topics addressed in the father’s appeal document almost all centered around rulings the trial judge made on November 8, 2017. The father was more than 10 months too late to contest anything that occurred as a result of the November 2017 order.

All of these issues, whether it is the proper way to argue a jurisdictional challenge or the proper timing for filing an appeal, can be subject to many rules of law and procedure that may be obscure or counterintuitive even to a smart and educated non-lawyer. These rules and concepts are, however, very definitely not lost on an experienced and skilled Maryland civil lawyer. In order words, arguing a case effectively, whether it is a criminal defense, personal injury lawsuit or a family law matter, is harder than it looks.

Winning a child custody dispute is more complex than just making generic assertions before a judge about how yours is the better home for your child. When it comes to providing for your children’s well-being, why leave anything to chance? Instead, put powerful and effective legal knowledge on your side. Retain experienced Maryland family law attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been effectively representing mothers, fathers and others in Maryland custody litigation cases for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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