Meaning of Terms
When reading various articles on the internet and when reviewing legal documents prepared and filed by unrepresented parties to lawsuits you will see the term “Pro Se” and “Pro Per”. The terms are taken from the Latin phrase “In Propia Persona”, which essentially means “for one’s own person”.
Throughout this article I will use the term “Pro Se Litigant” (upper and lower case). This is simply a shorthand way of describing someone who is engaged in a dispute with someone else, usually in court, and in which they have chosen to represent themselves. Even though, technically, no one is a litigant until a case has been filed in court I often use the term for all disputes which are or could end up in court.
Internet User Beware
As we have repeatedly stated in our books, articles, and blog posts, it is EXTREMELY important that anyone considering representing themselves be wary of using terms or taking legal positions espoused by people on the internet, especially those who didn’t graduate from law school and have never practiced law. For lack of a better term we’ll call those people “the Citizens Brigade”.
Unfortunately, members of the Citizens Brigade are firmly convinced the law is a racket and since they have read the Constitution (maybe) only they understand it better than law professors and lawyers but that also qualifies them to read, explain, and apply all types of law to all sets of facts.
I’m not sure where they originated, but I have seen their arguments cost the proponents hundreds of thousands of dollars when they had a winnable case if they had understood the actual law. Unfortunately, I have also been witness to a case where a man chose to represent himself in a criminal case where an excellent plea bargain had been offered but, instead, he chose to use the wrong arguments and ended up being sentenced to prison (for failing to file one piece of paper which would have allowed probation), and testified to things which got his wife charged with conspiracy as well.
The members of the Citizens Brigade often make comments or even post entries on blogs explaining the importance of the distinction between Pro Se and Pro Per, as well as other topics, but they are invariably wrong and using their arguments or reasoning never works out better than using information obtained from websites or other sources written or operated by attorneys or former attorneys, as well as people with a traditional legal education and actual courtroom experience.
Which is Proper – Pro Se vs. Pro Per
Some states have a general preference for which term is used. For instance, in Louisiana the self represented litigants in a case usually refer to themselves as appearing Pro Per, whereas right next door in Texas the preferred term is Pro Se.
Generally, since the terms mean the same then they are interchangeable. No judge is likely to strike a person’s pleadings or dismiss their case because they refer to themselves as Pro Se when the judge usually hears the term Pro Per or vice versa.
The litigant is often best served by either searching the internet or the legal search engines (for more information on legal research see our book The Guerrilla Guide to Legal Research – Finding the Law For Non Lawyers) to see what term is most often used. The person can also go to the clerk of the court for the court which their case will be or is already in and asking the clerk if they can look at a few files where a party is representing themselves
Most often, the only place the designation has to be done is under the signature line on the documents filed in the case.
Effect of Being Pro Per or Pro Se
One thing the person choosing to represent themselves needs to be completely aware of is that they are held to the same legal standards as an attorney. Thus, if you are given a deadline you must meet it. If the law, the Rules of Civil Procedure, a docket control order, or local rules provide deadlines for different filings a pro se litigant is expected to know or find them and follow them just the same as the attorneys in the case. Required motions or filings must be done and deficient pleadings will be struck, just as they would be if an attorney submitted them incorrectly. While some judges are inclined to give a little leeway to people representing themselves, this kindness cannot and should not be relied on by anyone.
Which to Use
It really doesn’t matter unless the judge has told you they have a preference. Since they mean the same thing, both terms get the meaning across. If the judge states they want you to use one term or the other then by all means that is the one to use. Otherwise, use the one you prefer but be consistent and don’t use one sometimes and then the other. This is the mark of someone who is not paying attention to details and, if you are facing a lawyer on the other side of the dispute, is “blood in the water”.
Other Resources for Specific Legal Information
Most states have their own websites and publications dealing with the legal and court system in that state. Their publications tend to be very basic and lack any specific legal information. The internet has a lot of sources but, unfortunately, many if not most of them provide incorrect data or information which most people don’t have the legal background to understand. These are the reasons we first began publishing the Guerrilla Guides to the Law. Each of these focus on one specific area of the law and provide not only information but also the reasoning behind any ideas the guides set forth. If you understand the “Why” it makes it much easier to apply that concept to any other set of facts.
If a reader of our website has any questions as to which of our books would apply to their situation, they are welcome to drop us an email through our Contact Us page and we’ll be glad to assist them in determining which book applies. We also welcome any suggestions as to the topics our customers would like to see for our next books.
Both Pro Se and Pro Per are designations which a party to a lawsuit uses to easily show they are not represented by an attorney but are choosing instead to represent themselves. While the terms are interchangeable, choose one and use it throughout the proceedings and if a judge indicates a preference, then use that term.
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