Self-representation in court without the assistance of a lawyer is not an uncommon practice. According to the Self-Represented Litigation Network, three out of every five people
who file civil cases represent themselves in court. While criminal defendants are legally entitled to have a lawyer argue their case, some defendants also choose to represent themselves in court.
While there is no single reason why individuals choose to represent themselves, financial concerns motivate many litigants who choose to speak on behalf of their own interests in court. A Legal Services Corporation study on The Justice Gap
indicates that “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help." Thankfully, there are resources available
for those who either choose to represent themselves in court or feel like they have no other option.
Can You Represent Yourself in Court?
You’re entitled to represent yourself in civil or criminal court unless narrow exceptions related to mental illness
apply. If you choose to represent yourself, you’ll be considered a "pro se" litigant. Pro se is a Latin phrase that literally means "for oneself, on one's own behalf." You can find more general and state-specific information about this process when searching for self-representation resources
and pro se representation resources.
What to Expect When Representing Yourself in Court
Some judges treat pro se litigants less strictly than they do lawyers because they understand that if you’re representing yourself and you’re not a lawyer, you aren’t going to understand courtroom rules and norms in the same ways that lawyers do. The judge may speak to you straightforwardly, prompt you when necessary, and allow you to present your arguments in a less formal way.
However, some judges won't treat pro se litigants any differently than lawyers. These judges will expect you to know the same “ins and outs” of how cases proceed and are argued as they expect from attorneys.
Finally, some judges have biases
against self-represented litigants. If one of these judges is assigned to your case, you may be at a disadvantage from the start through no fault of your own. This is one reason why it might be advantageous to either hire a lawyer or speak with a legal aid organization about free or low-cost representation.
How to Represent Yourself in Court Without a Lawyer
If you decide to represent yourself in court, you may benefit from:
- Learning about the steps involved in cases like yours
- Taking notes on how to introduce evidence and how to object to unfavorable evidence presented by the other side
- Asking about whether you’ll be required to appear in court more than once
- Filling out all necessary paperwork and making sure it's accurate
- Consulting with an attorney who can give you some valuable guidance, even if you only meet with them for an hour
Additionally, you’ll want to dress professionally, speak respectfully to the judge, and don’t approach the judge unless you’ve both asked to do so and been granted permission. Good courtroom etiquette goes a long way to ensure things go as smoothly as possible.
Pros and Cons of Representing Yourself in Court
The primary benefit of representing yourself, especially if your legal issue is low-stakes, is saving money on legal costs. This is the reason why so many people choose to represent themselves in traffic court and small claims court. Although the risk of losing a few hundred dollars isn’t nothing, the stakes of these legal scenarios aren’t so high that they necessarily warrant racking up legal fees to secure the outcome that someone is hoping for.
Similarly, many people benefit from representing their own interests in court when they can access enough solid information to do so effectively. Some non-profit organizations empower low-income pro se litigants to argue their cases successfully without the need for an attorney’s assistance. For example, Upsolve
provides a free platform for pro se Chapter 7 bankruptcy litigants who have straightforward cases. This free service, which guides low-income Chapter 7 filers through the bankruptcy process step-by-step, was named one of 2020’s best inventions by Time Magazine
But, complicated legal issues generally need to be handled by an attorney to better ensure favorable results. Without the benefit of a legal education and significant experience, pro se litigants generally won't understand all the complexities of their legal cases. Multiple studies indicate
that pro se litigants achieve favorable outcomes dramatically less often than those who hire attorneys do.
Unsure of Whether Representing Yourself in Court is the Best Plan?
If you don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer or you’re concerned about saving money, you could benefit from seeking professional legal guidance before committing to representing yourself pro se. You can learn more about your rights and options by scheduling a free consultation with a local lawyer.