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The Many Pitfalls of Representing Yourself

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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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Child Protective Services Investigation

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Criminal Defense Lawyer West ChesterA December 2017 article published by Bucks County Courier Times discusses a fifth child in Bucks County under age 16 to die this year under suspicious circumstances. At the Skinner Law Firm, we find this incredibly alarming; no child should die under suspicious circumstances!

Pennsylvania’s child protection laws include mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Our legislators have chosen respected members of the community to be designated mandatory reporters (see the full list here). These individuals are held to a higher standard and are charged as being guardians for our most cherished and vulnerable citizens—children. The following is a partial list of adults who are required by law to report suspected child abuse:

  • Anyone licensed or certified to practice in a health-related field under the jurisdiction of the Department of State
  • A medical examiner, coroner, or funeral director
  • Employees of health care facilities or providers licensed by the Department of Health who are engaged in the admission, examination, care, or treatment of individuals
  • School employees
  • Employees of a child care service who have direct contact with children in the course of employment
  • Members of the clergy

This is an extensive list; fortunately, we are empowering a virtual army to protect our children. In addition, parent volunteers in schools and others who come into close contact with children may be required to obtain child abuse clearances from the state police. If the volunteer has not been a Pennsylvania resident for at least 10 years, he or she must be cleared by the FBI.

Usually, there are physical and behavioral warning signs evident in children who are suffering abuse. By virtue of their educational backgrounds and professions, the mandated reporters are well qualified to recognize the common signs of abuse and neglect. As a community resource, the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center offers a no-cost online course on recognizing and reporting abuse cases.

Coercion, Intimidation, and CYS Investigations

The Office of Children Youth and Families (CYF), often called child protective services (CPS), takes its responsibilities very seriously. CYS’s singular purpose is to protect those who cannot protect themselves—to ensure that no more children die from suspicious causes. If there is even a small suggestion of abuse or neglect, CYS requires an investigation.

The key role of the child protective services (CYS) investigator is to determine if a child is at risk of harm. If the findings unequivocally indicate a high risk of danger, the child may be removed from the home, at least on a temporary, emergency basis.

When that determination is not absolutely certain, and the evidence is not crystal clear, the investigator may still believe that the child should be removed from the home. With all good intentions, and with the best interests of the child in the forefront, the caseworker may try to unduly influence, encourage, or persuade the caregiver to take certain actions for the child’s betterment.

Persuasion can feel like coercion during an investigation. Toward this end, it is wise for parents or caregivers to have an attorney present during questioning.

How the Investigation Process Works

Once a case is open, the caseworker may remove the suspected abuser from the home to maintain the integrity of the investigation. CYS usually follows specific guidelines during an abuse investigation. These steps include:

  • An interview with the child
  • An examination of the child, performed by a physician, to find signs of trauma or abuse
  • An interview with a parent of the child who is not suspected of abuse
  • Questioning the person accused of the abuse
  • An objective assessment of the risk to the child

These steps each serve a specific purpose:

  • The child interview should substantiate the alleged abuse if the child can give a description of what is happening
  • The medical exam can provide definitive evidence
  • Interviewing the non-suspect parent can lead to valuable information
  • The person accused of the abuse will also be interviewed directly
  • CYS will perform a risk assessment.

If CYS determines the child faces a high degree of risk, CYS may remove the child from the home and place him or her into state care.

An Investigation Should Begin Immediately

During the initial visit, CYS personnel will determine if the child is safe and if all of his or her immediate needs are being met. In an emergency situation, CYS personnel or local law enforcement may remove the child from the home immediately. If the child is not in imminent danger yet there are signs of abuse or neglect, CYS may go to court to obtain an order to remove the child from the home as soon as possible.

Whether or not the child is quickly removed from the home, CYS personnel will conduct a thorough investigation. This involves home visits as well as interviews with parents, family members, teachers, daycare workers, and any other individuals who may be able to substantiate abusive behavior and offer details. These interviews may take place at a person’s home or office, at a CYS location, or at a local police station.

If a court determines that CYS’s allegations of abuse or neglect are valid, families will likely have to deal with CYS and further investigations for at least one year.

Parents Have Rights

Nobody will dispute the fact that all children have an absolute right to be safe, but when a decision is made to remove children from the family home, parents also have rights:

  • Parents have a right to request kinship care, in lieu of foster care, for their children. During stressful times, the best place for the children is with a grandparent, aunt or uncle, cousin, or close friend’s home.
  • Parents have a right to appeal the decision to remove the child, as well as the final decision regarding any termination of parental rights.
  • Parents have a right to remain in contact with their children.
  • Parents have a right to fight for the restoration of their family.

Do not become tangled up in Pennsylvania’s CYS’s maze of restrictions and requirements without quality, experienced legal representation. Call the Skinner Law Firm at (610) 436-1410, or contact us online, for the help you need to put your family back together.

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Michael Skinner
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