A civil lawsuit is a legal action filed by a private individual or business against another private party who has caused them harm and for which they are seeking compensation. This in contrast to criminal cases, which are used to determine punishments for a defendant and can only be filed by a prosecutor or other legal representative of the government. In other words, a plaintiff to a civil lawsuit can request remedies like monetary damages or injunctions, not jail.
The right to self-representation, or “pro-se”, refers to the right to represent yourself in court, meaning without the assistance of an attorney. Although this “right” only extends to criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, many civil courts have discretion to allow civil litigants to appear pro-se.
Whether a civil litigant has an actual “right” has been the subject of much debate. According to a federal statute, a person may plead and conduct their own cases “in all courts of the United States.” Thus, in most cases, it seems as if this statute has preserved the right to self-representation for civil matters as well.
However, the issue becomes more confusing when the entity that wishes to represent themselves is a corporation. This is because some courts do not allow corporations to appear pro se. On the other hand, individuals typically must appear pro se and cannot hire an attorney when a matter is being settled in small-claims court.
What Is the Advantage of Self-Representing?
There are several advantages to self-representation. Some benefits of representing yourself in civil court include:
- Saving money on attorney fees;
- Having control over how to handle a case and employing legal strategies; and
- Ensuring that significant time will be dedicated to the case (e.g., lawyers are usually juggling several cases at once).
Additionally, litigants who choose to appear pro se often feel confident that they may understand the facts of their case better than anyone else could. They also tend to believe that they will fight harder since it is their case. However, this is not necessarily true because lawyers must follow their clients’ demands and have a professional obligation to make decisions with their client’s best interest in mind.
Are There Any Disadvantages to Self-Representation?
As with anything involving risks, there are also many drawbacks and disadvantages to self-representation. Some disadvantages to self-representation in civil cases include:
- Not knowing or understanding the intricacies of the law and court procedures;
- Being treated as a lawyer despite not having any professional training or experience;
- Meeting certain filing deadlines that a nonlawyer may not be aware of if they have never tried a case; and
- Losing a case or the opportunity to raise a defense that an attorney could have won or would have known to raise that defense, which could have reduced the damages.
What Are Some Guidelines if I Decide to Represent Myself in Civil Court?
If an individual decides to represent themselves in civil court, it is highly recommended that they take the following steps:
- Know the law: Understand any relevant laws that apply to the case, including both federal and state statutes, case law, local regulations, the rules of evidence, etc.
- Learn certain legal terms: It may be helpful to know some basic legal terminology (e.g., hearsay, relevance, testimony, etc.). Also, learn the roles of people in the courthouse (e.g., the court clerk, bailiff, etc.), and do not confuse the opposing party, their attorney, and a third-party representative (e.g., social worker as opposed to counsel).
- Follow proper procedures: There are many different legal procedures that lawyers must be aware of, such as the rules of a specific court, all local court rules, the process for filing documents with the court, and any statutes that provide instructions on certain procedures (e.g., filing deadlines, what to include in legal documents, etc.).
- Take notes: Write down details from the hearing and any meetings that may be important to the case. Also, jot down notes about any questions or topics that require further research afterwards.
- Be organized and well-prepared: For instance, spell check documents before filing them with the court, type-up important hand-written notes, use a folder to keep case materials organized and readily accessible, and so forth.
- Ask for help: Consult an attorney, a facilitator, a clerk, or some other resource before submitting documents or attending a hearing if a law or legal procedure does not make sense.
Additionally, some other tips that a pro se party should bear in mind include:
- Wear proper attire: Do not show up to a hearing dressed in flip-flops or sloppy clothes. While a suit is the best option when deciding on what to wear to court, if a person does not own one, they should strive to dress in a clean and neat manner (e.g., dress pants, work shoes, combed hair, etc.).
- Be respectful: Address the judge accordingly and be kind to those in the courtroom, including the opposing party, court reporters, the court clerk, the bailiff, and other court officers. Basically, practice good manners and behave appropriately.
- Show up on time: Do not arrive late to any hearings or meetings with the court. This may require visiting the courthouse or locating a particular courtroom before the hearing to reduce the chances of being late.
- Do not speak or interrupt: Unless an objection is being raised, never interrupt the hearing or speak to the opposing party. All questions and/or comments should be reserved until it is the individual’s turn to present their argument or to question witnesses. Even then, the only persons the pro se party should be addressing are the judge or presiding officer, and witnesses on the stand.
- Remember to say thanks: No matter the outcome of a case, always remember to thank the court (i.e., the judge) and the court staff. It is not only the polite thing to do, but it will also leave a good impression in case a person is required to return to court.
Is There Help For Self-Representing Litigants?
There are many resources for litigants who intend to represent themselves. For instance, some judges either may allow or require a pro se party to work with an attorney who will serve in an advisory capacity. In other words, the litigant will still be able to represent themselves before the court, but they will have a designated lawyer available to ask questions or provide assistance should they need guidance.
Having an attorney as an advisor may be helpful for when a pro se party does not understand difficult aspects of the law or certain legal procedures. In some cases, an advisory attorney may even accompany the pro se party to their hearing where they may need quick advice on procedural rules.
Aside from an advising attorney, self-representing litigants can consult multiple online resources and guides. For example, many courts provide links to self-help websites and forms. Some courts will even give tips on self-representation.
For basic legal research purposes, pro se parties can use Google scholar to gain access to cases and federal government agencies for rules. Also, depending on the state, there may be useful information on websites for state and local governments, legal aid societies, and pro bono firms.
Although there are many articles and third-party websites that offer advice on the topic, pro se parties should cross-reference this information with relevant laws and local court rules. Oftentimes, third-party advice applies generally and may omit important details, or they may inadvertently provide misinformation that does not apply to a particular state or court.
Finally, various state courts also offer “facilitators.” These are persons who can assist and direct a pro-se party to the right resources. However, they cannot offer any legal advice on what a litigant should do. If a court does provide the option of speaking with a facilitator, a litigant should know that it is often on a first-come, first-served basis. Thus, wait times to gain access to a facilitator can range anywhere between a few minutes to several hours.
Do You Really Need a Lawyer?
So long as the law and/or court rules do not specify otherwise, the decision of whether to hire a lawyer or not is entirely up to you. However, keep in mind that representing yourself does come with many risks. Your success will depend on your knowledge of the law and your own abilities to argue a case. Thus, if your case involves a large sum of damages or a complex field of law, you should strongly consider retaining a lawyer.
At the very least, you should consult a local civil lawyer for further guidance. Your lawyer can provide general legal advice, answer any questions you may have, and explain complicated statutes or court procedures. You may also want to have a lawyer review your legal strategy to increase your chances of obtaining a successful outcome for your case.