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Self-representation in Criminal Cases

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Can Someone Represent Themselves In Court?

Yes. Self-representation is called appearing "pro se" or "pro per."

What Should I Know before Deciding to Represent Myself?

Self- representation is never a good idea. However, the reality of the legal world is that it happens, and for a variety of reasons. For example, it may be hard for someone to justify paying for an attorney’s time to dispute a minor traffic violation. However, the more severe offense and punishment, the more important it is that a defense lawyer is consulted.

Here are some considerations criminal defendants, self-represented or not, should keep in mind.

First time offenders of non-violent crimes are usually offered the same standard deal by the prosecutor. Be aware that jail time is sometimes inevitable, and with a conviction comes hidden costs, such as higher insurance rates or a difficultly securing employment. For repeat offenders, punishments are usually more severe.

Judges will treat pro se litigants the same way judges treat attorneys. This means that if someone decides to undertake self-representation, the court will expect them to:

  • Meet all deadlines
  • Attend all hearings
  • Fill out proper forms
  • Follow the rules of court
  • Abide by the rules of evidence
  • Understand legal language
  • Speak on their own behalf in a formal setting

Someone representing themselves should be capable of all of the above, or expect their case to be impacted negatively.

How Can I Learn about My Potential Criminal Sentence?

It can be difficult to learn about a judges' common sentencing practice is for a specific crime, since they are usually not listed in statutes or court rules (unless the case is in a federal court, where mandatory minimums apply). Thus, a way to find out what a punishment will be is to pay for an hour consultation with a private lawyer or to talk to a lawyer at the public defender's office.

Can a Self-Represented Individual Still Pay a Lawyer for Advice?

Yes. A self-represented criminal defendant can hire a lawyer to assist in their pro se defense. This lawyer can help review documents and prepare for the various hearings involved in a criminal defense. However, not all attorneys are willing to do this. For example, if one of these lawyers gives advice and then the person appearing pro se misunderstands that advice or uses it in the wrong way, the lawyer may be professionally liable. In some jurisdictions, a court may appoint an attorney to help assist individuals appearing on their own behalf.

What If I Later Decide I Need an Attorney?

If someone attempts to represent themselves but later decides to hire a lawyer, they may. However, that person or the attorney will need to notify the court of the change in representation, and in some circumstances, they may need to ask the court for permission. Also, the legal process will continue from where the case left off; the case will not restart because the self-represented person changed their mind about hiring an attorney.

If financial considerations are a factor for a criminal defendant, that individual may be able to be represented by a public defender.

Should I Seek Legal Advice?

If you are considering representing yourself in your criminal matter, you should seriously consider consulting with an attorney first. Despite the wealth of knowledge available these days, attorneys are highly trained individuals who must meet several standards of competency in order to hold themselves out as legal professionals. Many attorneys will take offer a free consultation, and this meeting may enlighten you as to the dangers of self-representation.
Photo of page author Matthew Izzi

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 05-02-2014 10:14 AM PDT

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