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Self-Representation in a Court Case

We all like to think we can do things for ourselves. There are some situations where going it alone is fine. Your court hearing may not be one of them. Before you decide to represent yourself, you should think things over carefully.

Sometimes, the cost of legal help is part of the calculation. Attorneys are expensive, and you may wonder if your case needs the extra cost of legal representation. Or your case seems straightforward enough not to need a lawyer, like a traffic ticket or a divorce hearing.

This article reviews some topics self-represented litigants may find helpful in deciding whether to seek legal advice.

Factors To Keep In Mind

Self-represented, or "pro se litigants," must do all the work that attorneys and their legal staff do before and during a case. That includes everything you don't see on TV, like filing documents, researching, contacting witnesses, and other parties to the case. Depending on the type of case, you may need to prepare discovery documents and court papers. One reason attorneys cost so much is because they have support staff to help with all the paperwork.

Other things to consider:

  • The court system has rules for filing documents and presenting evidence. Pro se parties get some leeway when filing their papers, but not much. You still need to follow court rules, even if you don't know them.
  • The court process follows a precise sequence. You cannot miss any steps, or the judge may dismiss your case. Failing to follow the process can result in losing your case if you are the defendant.
  • Plaintiffs and defendants have the right to refuse to answer some questions or produce some evidence. Refusals must refer to particular laws, or the court will not accept them. Worse, you could waive your rights without realizing it.

Legal Assistance for Pro Se Litigants

If you decide to represent yourself, you won't be all alone. Most courts have self-help centers at the courthouse, and court forms are available for free download on the court's website. Although court staff cannot give legal advice, they can usually help you file documents and explain where your case belongs.

Other legal resources include:

  • The court law library
  • Online legal help sites (such as FindLaw)
  • Low-cost/no-cost legal clinics

Civil Litigation

Pro se litigants most often appear in civil trials. Small claims courts are limited jurisdiction courts where the dollar award sought is below a certain amount. In many states, attorneys cannot appear for plaintiffs, so you must represent yourself.

Some states, such as California, have "limited civil" courts, which hear civil cases for amounts higher than the small claims limit. If your case is not complicated but has a dollar value higher than a small claims case, you might consider a limited civil court.

When you represent yourself, you risk losing your case due to a lack of understanding of court procedure or how to win a case. For instance, you must serve the complaint on the opposing party within a specific time after filing, and then file a notice of service to prove you completed service. Failing to do either of these things can result in a dismissal.

Civil cases that should have legal representation include:

Criminal Trials

The old adage that those who represent themselves have fools for clients is especially true for criminal trials. No matter the situation, you should not represent yourself in a criminal case. The stakes are too high, even if the penalty is only a fine.

If you face jail or prison time, you should never represent yourself. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees all criminal defendants charged with misdemeanors or felonies the right to counsel at all critical stages of the court process.

You may need to defend yourself if you have an infraction, such as a traffic ticket. State courts do not have to provide attorneys for low-level offenses. Some states will only provide public defenders for misdemeanors with sentences of at least six months. Always seek legal advice for any hearing involving:

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is an option for those who need to represent themselves. Different ADR programs exist, but most allow parties to resolve their cases without litigation. Self-representing parties should be aware of subtle differences between the most common types of ADR.

  • Arbitration involves the parties meeting with an administrative law judge. The process is very similar to court. The rules for presenting evidence and witnesses are slightly relaxed. The ALJ will review the evidence and make a ruling in favor of one party. Arbitration is binding on both parties.
  • Mediation is an informal process in which the parties meet with a neutral mediator and attempt to reach a resolution. In mediation, the parties craft their own solution with the mediator's help. Mediation is only binding if the parties submit their agreement to the court.

ADR is less expensive than litigation and ideal for self-represented individuals since they are on a more equal footing with the other side. Many states refer small claims cases to mediation before the judge hears them.

Hiring an Attorney

The internet contains a wealth of legal aid for pro se plaintiffs and defendants. However, the law is a complicated beast. Legal professionals have knowledge that can't be acquired with a few hours online. If you're facing a criminal case or a serious civil matter, don't hesitate to contact an attorney in your area who knows your state laws and local rules.

Learn About Self-Representation

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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