Can You Represent Yourself In Court?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
If you have a legal problem, you may know the facts of your own case better than anyone else. Lawyers can be expensive, and you may wonder if they're worth the cost. But can you really represent yourself in court?
Understanding a little bit about the legal system and what type of case you have can help you decide whether you need a lawyer.
Federal, state and local courts each have rules about when you're required to have a lawyer, but generally, you have the right to represent yourself. If you go to court without a lawyer, the court may refer to you as a pro se litigant.
There are rare circumstances when a judge could require you to hire a lawyer. For example, the court might require a lawyer if you can't understand the proceedings or you're initiating a class-action lawsuit. Laws and procedures vary, so you should always check the applicable court rules or speak with a lawyer before initiating a lawsuit.
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Letting the court know you're going to represent yourself is straightforward. You can begin by filing required court documents by yourself. You may need to tell the judge you're self-represented during court; you can usually do this at the first hearing on your case.
If you're initiating a civil case, such as a personal injury claim or divorce, you'll file the necessary court documents yourself. This lets the court know you're self-represented. However, you can hire a lawyer after filing, so a judge may ask whether you intend to find a lawyer.
If you're the responding party in a civil case, you'll need to file a written response or appear in court. Make sure you understand what kind of written responses and court appearances are required. Courts hold pro se parties to most of the same standards as lawyers, and a missed deadline or court appearance could result in a judge ruling against you.
The court usually can't force you to hire a lawyer for a civil case. However, you can't represent someone else's interests. This means the court might require a lawyer if you're starting a class-action suit or attempting to act on behalf of someone else, such as a spouse or child.
Occasionally, the judge may find that a pro se litigant is mentally incompetent, unable to understand their rights or fundamental aspects of what's happening in the courtroom. In these cases, the court may rule that the person can't be entirely self-represented. The court may appoint a guardian ad litem or other counsel to represent the litigant's best interests.
Criminal cases can look a little different because defendants have a constitutional right to an attorney in most cases. Early in a criminal case, the court will hold an arraignment hearing, where the judge will explain the defendant's rights, including the right to counsel. This right includes court-appointed counsel, such as a public defender, if the defendant can't afford an attorney.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that this right to counsel, protected by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, includes the right to be self-represented. However, courts must ensure defendants knowingly and voluntarily choose self-representation, especially on serious criminal matters. Therefore, if you decide to represent yourself in a criminal case, the judge will probably ask you several questions to confirm your decision.
If, at any point, a criminal defendant is found to be incompetent and unable to continue with self-representation, the court may decide to appoint a lawyer. You don't have the right to represent yourself if a judge finds that you can't understand your rights or make decisions about the case.
The right to counsel doesn't usually apply to minor traffic violations or crimes that don't carry a possibility of jail time. In these cases, you must hire your lawyer or represent yourself, so the court's questions about your decision are typically less thorough.
More Related Articles:
- When Do You Need a Lawyer? Determine If You Need to Hire an Attorney
- What Is a Class-Action Lawsuit?
- What Is a Misdemeanor?
- What to Do After a Car Accident
- What Is Power of Attorney?
While you have the right to self-representation, that doesn't mean appearing in court without a lawyer is a good idea.
Representing yourself in a civil case can save you a lot of money. And you may not need much legal advice if your case is relatively simple or there isn't a lot of money involved. For example, you may be able to represent yourself without problems in an uncontested divorce where there aren't complex assets to divide.
However, you could lose your case if you don't understand the court rules or miss deadlines. Lawyers have the experience, resources and authority to do things that can be difficult for self-represented parties, such as conducting legal research, accessing court records and issuing subpoenas.
If you're trying to decide whether to represent yourself, consider seeking a legal aid attorney or hiring a private lawyer for a consultation. The lawyer may be able to answer some of your questions or help you prepare court documents, even if you choose to represent yourself.
If you don't qualify for court-appointed counsel, representing yourself in a criminal case can save you money. But representing yourself in a criminal case has significant risks. Defense lawyers are skilled in:
- Negotiating plea agreements
- Interviewing witnesses
- Making legal arguments to the judge
- Picking a jury
- Navigating court and trial procedures
Making mistakes in a criminal case can lead to jail time, fines and a criminal record. The severity of the consequences of those mistakes depends on the charges you’re facing. You should carefully consider whether you have the skills to represent yourself and what could happen if you go to court without a lawyer.
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