Pro se representation is when the defendant in a criminal case chooses to represent themselves in a court of law. Instead of relying on a lawyer for representation and advice, a pro se defendant researches and argues their own case in front of the judge and the jury. A defendant who represents themselves in court is called a “pro se defendant”.
Most lawyers and judges would agree that pro se representation is not always the best decision for a defendant facing criminal charges. Many legal professionals can point to figures and statistics which demonstrate where attempts at self-representation have failed and led to unnecessary convictions. However, the right to pro se representation is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. So, if the defendant chooses to represent themselves, the court must honor that decision.
What are the advantages of pro se representation?
The majority of criminal defendants who choose to go pro se base their decision on a lack of trust in the judicial system. Many defendants are hesitant to work with a court-appointed defense attorney because they do not trust that the attorney will render good service. In other words, they feel that they can do a better job themselves. Some pro se defendants feel that no person knows the details of their situation better than they do.
Another common reason a defendant might choose pro se representation is the cost involved in hiring an attorney. If the defendant does not like the attorney that the court provides, it might cost them a significant amount of money to hire a private defense lawyer. Saving money is perhaps one of the greatest advantages of pro se representation. However, often times the defendant might be saving money at the risk of losing their case because they are unequipped to argue on their own.
What are some of the disadvantages of pro se representation?
Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of pro se representation is that most defendants are not adequately trained in the law to represent themselves. Unless they have been trained in law school, the average criminal defendant will be unfamiliar with the requirements of law needed to prove that they are not guilty.
Even common criminal charges like burglary can be complicated because there are many elements to prove. Also, in any criminal trial, there are many procedural rules that must be followed in court, such as how to make objections and how to enter evidence. Procedural rules can be difficult to learn on the spot, especially if the defendant is in the custody of the court.
Although a defendant might some knowledge of the law, knowledge alone is not enough to win a case. The defendant must be able to argue their position and persuade the parties that they are not guilty. Again, the average person will usually find it difficult to argue if they lack training in communication and argumentation skills. Language barriers can further complicate the situation.
Finally, one of the main disadvantages of pro se representation is the issue of bias. It is difficult to present evidence and make fair arguments if the defendant cannot see both sides of the situation. Lawyers are trained to consider all the factors in a given case, but most defendants lack the ability to do so.
Are there any alternatives to pro se representation?
Yes, some judges may allow or require a pro se defendant to work with a “standby attorney”. This means that the defendant is free to represent themselves, but a lawyer is available for assistance when necessary. A standby attorney may be present at hearings and at trial to assist with procedural rules and/or argumentation. This type of hybrid representation setup has recently become a popular compromise between traditional representation and pro se representation.
Do you really need a lawyer?
As mentioned, the decision to proceed as a pro se defendant will almost always be more risky than working with a lawyer. If you represent yourself, your success will depend on your own knowledge of the law and whether you can argue your claim in the proper way. At the very least you may wish to request an initial consultation with a lawyer to determine what type of representation best suits your situation. You should not take any chances at all if you are unsure about your own abilities.