Going Pro Se: Handling Legal Problems on Your Own
It’s true, you don’t need a lawyer to handle many common legal problems, like a landlord-tenant dispute for instance. You can represent yourself in court. You can win, too, but you have to know what you’re doing and follow the rules.
- You’re a pro se litigant when you represent yourself in a legal dispute
- Thousands of people represent themselves in criminal and non-criminal matters each year
- Success-failure statistics for pro se cases are scarce, but it doesn’t matter if you know how to help yourself
Reasons & Statistics Aside, You Can Win
"Pro se" is the fancy legal term used to describe someone who’s representing themselves in a legal matter. In Latin it means "for yourself" or "on your own behalf."
Why Represent Yourself?
Everyone has their own reasons for choosing not to hire a lawyer. Some simply don’t think that lawyers have their clients’ best interests in mind – they’re only interested in getting paid or finishing a case as quickly as possible. Most pro se litigants, however, can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
There has been an increase in the number of pro se cases in recent years because the increased accessibility of information has empowered people to take control of their own legal needs.
Keep in mind, too, that small claims courts across the US handle a lot of legal problems (usually ones involving $2,500 or less). These courts are designed to help people settle their disputes without the added expense of attorney’s fees. In some states, attorneys aren’t allowed to represent clients in small claims court, so of course these litigants must go pro se.
Track Records for Pro Se Litigants
There are thousands of federal, state and local courts across the country. Thousands of lawsuits are handled every day. It’s not surprising, then, that there really aren’t any hard statistics on things like:
- How many pro se cases don’t make it to the courtroom
- Who wins more often, the plaintiff (the person who filed the suit) or the defendant – the person who was sued
However, some statistics are available, but they’re usually several years old. For example:
- Some states collect the number and type (PDF) of pro se cases filed in various courts, but no other stats are given
- According to 2004 information from the Department of Justice (PDF), only 10 percent of undocumented aliens in immigration appeal cases were successful (there was a 40 percent success rate when undocumented immigrants are represented by lawyers)
- Taxpayers representing themselves in disputes with the IRS often fare well, but again, not as well as those represented by lawyers
Even with lawyers, many cases don’t get heard by judges for a variety of reasons – the case settles, the case falls apart, etc. If you’re representing yourself and your case doesn’t make it in front of a judge, don’t assume it’s because you’re representing yourself.
You Can Represent Yourself & Win
Reasons why and statistics don’t mean much if you take your pro se case seriously and give it the time and attention it needs. Pro se litigants lose, and sometimes lose before they see the inside of a courtroom, for all sorts of reasons. But mainly, it’s because, unlike lawyers, they usually don’t understand all the rules, processes and procedures involved in lawsuits.
For instance, no matter what type of case you’re involved in:
- All sorts of papers have to be filled out properly and filed with the court by certain dates, with copies sent to the other side by a certain date
- A case has to be filed within a certain amount of time (called the statute of limitations)
- If you don’t show up for a hearing or the trial, the odds are you’ll lose the case
- You have to follow certain rules before you can use pictures, documents, sound recordings and other kinds of evidence to prove your case
Those are just a few of the things you need to handle; there are dozens of other things that will doom your case if they’re not done the right way.
What You Can Do
Here are some things you can do to help you win the case:
- Don’t assume you can’t afford a lawyer. Call a legal aid society in your community to see if you can get some free or low-cost legal help
- Check out the web site for the court where your case is being heard. Many courts put legal forms, court rules and other valuable tools right at your finger tips
- Find a law library in your area or an online legal resource (like Lawyers.com) so you can do research for your case
- Whether you’re online or in a library, read the laws, rules and processes very carefully. It will take time, and the materials aren’t always easy to understand, but it’s the key to winning your case
You deserve your day in court and the chance to protect your legal rights. You can represent yourself and be successful so long as you know and follow the rules.
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