Representing Yourself in Court
Lessons In Law: Representing Yourself in Court
Most people come to this website because they have been sued or want to sue somebody but either don’t have the money for a lawyer or just don’t want to spend the money. Also, in some cases the courts don’t allow attorneys (ex. California Small Claims Courts). However, representing yourself is not something that everyone should attempt. I’ll set out a few reasons below when an attorney is a better option that being “pro se”.
When Not to Represent Yourself
1) If You Have a Disability that Would Interfere
Many, many people with disabilities can represent themselves in a case with absolutely no problems. However, with others it can be a serious issue. Some people, for instance, are unable to speak in front of a crowd, others have problems continuing with a train of thought. Handling a lawsuit requires a great deal of preparation as well as unimpeded mental faculties and if you don’t believe you are up to the task due to a disability then you should retain an attorney. Even in the courts where attorneys are not allowed, someone with a disability should be allowed to use one due to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
2) If You Won’t Devote the Time Necessary
My office once calculated that I spent between 10 and 20 hours of time preparing for a trial for every hour I spent in court. That is the actual amount of time I spent selecting and preparing exhibits, preparing questions, writing trial briefs, and the hundreds of other things you do to get ready.
In addition to the trial preparation we also had to work on the file, gathering records, doing discovery, doing legal research, preparing pretrial motions, etc.
A lawsuit isn’t something to be taken lightly. If you aren’t willing to devote the time necessary then you should either retain an attorney or find a way not to be involved in the lawsuit in the first place. Otherwise, you are wasting the time of everyone involved and virtually guaranteeing you will end up with a judgment against you.
3) If You Have Problems Reading and Writing
Unfortunately, a study conducted in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, found that 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. That’s 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read.
While these numbers are shocking in themselves, and show an abject failure on the part of the US educational system, for our purposes they mean that a higher percentage of people than those in the study can’t, or at least shouldn’t, represent themselves in a case. Lawsuits require the ability to be able to read the rules as well as anything sent by the court or the other party. A litigant must also be able to write so they can prepare their documents, contact the court and the other party and other activities.
A person must also be able to do at least some legal research in case issues arise.
While many people are ashamed or embarrassed because of their inability to read or write, it is important that they set aside these personal feelings and hire an attorney or at least visit with one about their case. In some situations an attorney can recommend a paralegal who can assist the litigant with preparing their documents and responding to their opponent. However, ignoring this issue is almost guaranteed to mean the pro se person with the problem loses the case and potentially has a hefty judgment granted against them or, if they are the ones that need to bring the lawsuit, they are unable to win and lose the money they were seeking.
4) If You May Go to Jail If the Case is Lost
There is a reason lawyers go to law school for three years. It is to learn the concepts of law and to apply them to a variety of situations.
It is my feeling that no one, not even lawyers, should represent themselves in a criminal case or in a case such as contempt of court when you could go to jail if you lose. The simple fact is that there are more ways to lose a case than there are to win it. Fighting a case requires an intimate knowledge of the Rules of Evidence and the Rules of Procedure and these must be so ingrained in a person handling a case that they don’t have to research them. The other parts of the law you can look up, but the Rules of Procedure (how a case is conducted) and the Rules of Evidence (how to get evidence admitted or excluded) are so important that each of them are taught during an entire year of law school. There is simply no way that a person can learn these quickly enough to handle a case where jail time is a potential outcome.
5) If You Have a Power of Attorney and Intend to Use it to Bring or Defend a Lawsuit
One of the least understood documents is what is known as a Power of Attorney. It is not unusual to see someone go to a lot of trouble filling out papers and researching issues and then filing a lawsuit for someone else who has given them Power of Attorney to conduct business for them. However, a Power of Attorney doesn’t make you an attorney or allow you to represent someone in a legal forum. It would allow you to hire an attorney to represent them. In many states, a person filing a lawsuit for someone else, whether they have a Power of Attorney or not, is illegal.
So, in short, if you have a Power of Attorney over someone and a lawsuit needs to be filed you must hire an attorney to file the paperwork and represent them.
Resources for Pro Se Litigants
If you do choose to represent yourself, LessonsInLaw.com has teamed with RebellionBooks.com to produce a library of self help books known as The Guerrilla Guides to the Law. There are several different ones available and more are being written. You can see a listing of what is available and their pricing at http://www.lessonsinlaw.com/the-guerrilla-guides-to-the-law/
We’ve chosen to do The Guerrilla Guides as ebooks so that they can be updated quickly, they are available for immediate access, and the cost is reasonable. They are available in PDF at the above link or on Amazon in Kindle format. We suggest the PDF version since that allows you to cut and paste forms and language from the book into your documents although the Kindle versions are a few dollars cheaper due to these limitations.