10 Hints for Representing Yourself in Court

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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It’s not easy to represent yourself in court. Here are some useful tips that may help with in propria persona/pro se litigation (note that this is not legal advice, and in many cases you are well advised to retain your own attorney):

10. Beware case law! For the non-lawyer, case law is not as useful as are practice guides, legal encyclopedias, and other secondary sources that summarize and explain the law. Too often I have seen non-lawyers believe that a specific case makes their point a “slam dunk,” and then be shocked when the court does not agree. Thus, you should concentrate on resources that describe the law before going to cases. NOLO press has excellent resources available for a reasonable price. Update: if you need to do legal research but have not done so before, try consulting How to Research a Legal Problem: A Guide for Non-Lawyers.

9. The law is often flexible but rarely clear. Many non-lawyers get hung up on “magic words,” either in case law, statutes, or contracts. Although such parsing can be critical, in many situations, intention and fairness are more much more important points to make with the court – but only if it also comports with the law.

8. Written documentation is critical. While oral contracts can certainly be binding, contracts, agreements, letters, and other written documents are much easier to present and are usually much stronger evidence in court. Even writing down your understanding of a conversation immediately after it occurs can strengthen your case, as can a journal or log of interactions.

7. Be nice to the court clerk and the administrative staff. In many jurisdictions, the court clerk (who collects and processes your court paperwork, among other tasks) can be your best friend. While clerks cannot offer legal advice or suggestions for your case, they can help you meet all the filing and similar formal requirements to properly get your case heard. They can help you understand what the judge wants to know from you and when, and even where to find free or low-cost legal assistance in your community. So be nice to them.

6. Less drama, more discovery. There are rarely dramatic courtroom moments, nor does your winning or losing typically depend on them. A case runs through full (though disputed) discovery. This means in most cases disclosure of the documents and knowledge you have and your opponent has. Evidence is not supposed to be surprising, and “winning on cross” is more likely on television. (Thus, see #8, above, about the importance of written documentation.)

5. Be patient. Lawsuits, and even criminal trials, take time. There is a great deal of back-and-forth before you ever see the inside of a courtroom. Do not expect to resolve anything quickly if you rely on the judicial process. Speed is not its goal.

4. Consider small claims court. If the amount in dispute is low enough, small claims court is a much better option. It is faster, less formal, and you are not expected to retain a lawyer (in fact, you usually have to represent yourself). This evens the playing field, especially when dealing with corporations.

3. Settle, mediate, negotiate… all are very often better options than a long, drawn-out court battle that may well go against you. If you can work out something with your opponent that both sides are (un)happy with, you will most likely be better off in the long run. There are professional mediators who can act as neutral parties, and some courts may even require you to try this first. Consider it seriously as an alternative to litigation.

2. Sit in on court proceedings. Most courts are open to the public. Visit cases like yours and see how they are conducted. Go see “motions,” where the really critical – but often tedious – stuff happens. If you feel comfortable with the process, everything will go much smoother.

1. Hire a lawyer!