The Many Pitfalls of Representing Yourself

Dangerous of Self RepresentationWhen someone needs to appear in court but cannot afford an attorney, access to justice becomes a fundamental issue. In these circumstances, pro se litigation may seem like a viable and affordable solution.

You have the constitutional right to choose to defend yourself in a court of law without the assistance of an attorney. Since the enactment of the Judiciary Act of 1789, pro se litigation has been woven into the fabric of law and order in this country. In simple terms, any individual is legally allowed to represent themselves in matters of their own affairs when they cannot afford or choose not to hire an attorney. However, just because you have the right to represent yourself doesn’t mean that you should.

Typical Pro Se Cases

The types of cases that typically involve pro se litigants include:

  • Felony and misdemeanor cases
  • DUI cases
  • Landlord-tenant disputes
  • Traffic law violations
  • Divorces
  • Family law cases (child support, custody, and visitation)
  • Bankruptcies
  • Foreclosures
  • Probates

What to Expect When You Choose to Self-Represent

The American legal system is steeped in tradition. Fundamentally, every aspect of the law is based on history, protocol, and order. The ability of an untrained person to successfully prosecute or defend a civil or criminal action is questionable. The typical pro se litigant is unaccustomed to the legal requirements needed for a successful outcome. A major detriment to this type of representation is that, except in rare cases, pro se litigants are simply not adequately trained to represent themselves.

Federal rules of evidence, state rules of civil procedure, and complicated legalese are likely alien concepts to an untrained individual. Once inside a courtroom, procedural rules must be followed, objections must be made correctly, and evidence must be entered by the book. The fact that a self-representing litigant did not read the book will not matter. Responding to discovery requests, summary judgment motions, and motions to dismiss can intimidate anyone. Furthermore, the opposing lawyer will not help a pro se party and, in fact, will likely work to undermine his or her efforts and prevent the judge from providing assistance.

Technical flaws and missteps in the procedure can have serious consequences resulting in a dismissal of a case. A pro se litigant will need to learn and play by all the rules, all the time. This is a daunting task for anyone.

The Jury May View a Defendant Differently

Perception often becomes reality. Representing yourself can send out stereotypical misconceptions to the judge and the jury. For better or for worse, a self-representing litigant will be thought of as a person who:

  • Is too financially strapped to hire a lawyer
  • Feels the matter at hand is not important
  • Feels that he or she is right, and no one else’s opinion matters
  • Is unable to find a lawyer willing to take on his or her case
  • Feels the need to “play lawyer”

Missing deadlines or other mistakes could result in the court imposing sanctions on a pro se litigant, which can include fines, fees, and expenses for depositions, witness fees, and administrative costs.

Representing Yourself Is Not Easy

Serving as one’s own representative in court mandates a thorough knowledge of both the facts of law and the required procedures that must be followed. Although legal self-help resources are readily available, and some of the required documents can be found online, neither generally take into account the specific local or state requirements as they pertain to witnesses, discovery, case experts, and the specific language that must be included in legal forms.

No matter how many episodes of Law & Order a person may have committed to memory, procedural rules are difficult, and a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Law school graduates have a distinct advantage when it comes to communication and persuasion skills. Attorneys are trained to consider all of the factors in a given case. While a lawyer is able to connect all the dots and consider both sides of a situation when presenting a case, most pro se litigants will not have this ability.

Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

When a case is brought into court by a pro se litigator, it is done so as a last resort. The judge and jury generally know this. Often, both the judge and jury will consider pro se litigation a waste of judicial resources, especially when legal documents presented by pro se litigants must be vetted for errors. It will be clear from the get-go that an amateur is handling the matter, and likely result in undue tension in the courtroom. This can frequently be construed as substandard representation, and it can have a polarizing effect. While a pro se litigant will usually be treated with respect and courtesy, their arguments will seldom receive any merit. Not all judges have the temperament to maintain proper neutrality.

Those who choose to represent themselves should not expect any special treatment or leniency. They will be expected to comply with rules and regulations they may never have heard of. Missed deadlines and violations of the proper procedure can lead to a case being dismissed and increased legal costs for the defendant.

Legal proceedings are complex and require specialized knowledge of federal, state, and local statutes. Researching relevant rules is a daunting task for the layman. It is rare to find a non-lawyer litigant who is able to argue a constitutional issue.

The Bottom Line

The playing field is not always level, and the scales of justice may not actually be well balanced. Attempting to win a favorable outcome or negotiate a fair and reasonable compromise without competent legal counsel usually will not end well. If you or a loved one has questions about the advisability of acting on your own behalf in a Pennsylvania criminal or DUI case, call the Skinner Law Firm at (610) 436-1410, or contact us online, to schedule your free consultation with one of our experienced litigators.

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