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Represent Yourself in Court:
Is It Really Like Doing Your Own Brain
by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman-Barrett
Copyright © 1993 Nolo Press
You May Find Yourself in Many Unwanted Situations:
- You slip on loose carpeting in an office building and hurt your
- You own a small manufacturing business, and a supplier delivers
- Your landlord is suing to evict you from your apartment, and you
the eviction is unlawful.
- You want your ex-spouse to pay more child support.
In all of these instances--and many more--you may have to go to court to
your rights if you can't resolve your dispute in a friendly way.
Lawyers commonly charge over $150 an hour for their services, so it may
economic sense for you to hire one. Even if you win and are able to
the other side owes you, a lawyer's fees may devour much of your gain.
Representing yourself in court or dropping your claim or defense
be your only realistic alternatives.
Can You Really Represent Yourself?
Unless your case is unusually complex, the answer is yes--a resounding
may not have the legal training of a lawyer, but you do not need to go
school to have common sense, to learn how to ask intelligible questions
recognize what makes people and information believable.
In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the country's most revered
States Supreme Court justices, "The life of the law has not been logic,
been experience." As these words suggest, your everyday life experience
foundation of most of what you need to know to present a coherent,
case. Besides, as former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger was
pointing out, many lawyers are not such hotshots; they often come to
ill-prepared and lacking professional skills.
Do not be intimidated by the difficulty of the law or legal reasoning.
most part, you can look up the law you need to know. And you do not have
or sound like an experienced lawyer to be successful in court. Both
non-lawyers with extremely varied personal styles can succeed in court.
admonition to "be yourself" is as appropriate inside the courtroom as
No matter how carefully you prepare, you will probably feel anxious when
represent yourself in court, especially if your opponent has a lawyer.
not alone. Many professionals feel anxiety--particularly before a first
performance--whether they are lawyers about to begin a trial, teachers
teach a class or actors about to perform on stage. As long as you use
sense, educate yourself about courts and trials, and ask for help if you
confused, you should be able to represent yourself competently and
Being a Stranger in a Strange Land
Courts are public institutions belonging to the people, and you have the
represent yourself. However, courts are also bureaucratic institutions
Historically, filing clerks, courtroom clerks, court reporters and even
have usually preferred to deal with lawyers rather than with people who
themselves. People who opt to represent themselves in court are referred
"pro per" or "pro se" litigants.
Although the increasing number of people representing themselves is
change attitudes in some places, many court personnel believe that they
their work quicker and easier when they work with lawyers than when they
with pro pers. Do not be surprised if you initially encounter hostility
court personnel. Instead of helping you, they may even attempt to throw
at you in the hope that you will get discouraged and go away.
If you believe that court personnel at any level are being rude to you,
courteous and professional in return even as you insist upon fair
knowing and following court rules and courtroom techniques, you can
the respect of the judge and the others who work in the courtroom. You
find that they will go out of their way to help you.
How to Prepare for Trial
The key to success in the courtroom is good preparation. You will have
the rules before your trial begins: how to question witnesses, how to
objections, how to submit documents and more. Do not be discouraged.
lots of books that can help you learn what you need to know. Go to
public law library in the courthouse or a local public law school or to
bookstore and look for books on trial practice. Such books will explain
of a trial. You can later look for help in more specialized books if you
it--for example, if you get stumped on how to present specific
Each court system has its own procedural rules--for example, time limits
filing various documents and page limits on the length of those
though you are not a lawyer, judges will expect you to know and follow
rules. If you miss a deadline, use the wrong kind of paper or violate
rule, you will suffer the consequences even though you are a pro per
For instance, assume that you want to ask for a jury trial and that your
rule requires that a jury trial request must be made 30 days after the
documents are filed. If you miss that deadline, you will not have a jury
unless you go through a laborious process to request an extension of
time to file
your demand and the judge is willing to make an exception.
There are several rule books to have handy when you prepare your case.
Your State's Rules of Evidence
These rules define the evidence you and your adversary are allowed to
for the consideration of a judge or jury.
Your State's Rules of Court
These rules set out procedures and deadlines. Generally, states have
sets of rules for different kinds of courts. For example, a state may
set of rules for its Municipal Courts, another for its Superior Courts.
Your Specific Court's Local Court Rules
These nuts and bolts rules cover such important matters as where and
when to file
Books containing all of these rules should be available in a public law
You may also want to purchase these books from the Clerk's Office in the
courthouse or from a legal bookstore so that you can have them close at
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