II. DECIDING WHETHER TO REPRESENT
I have to have a lawyer or can I represent myself?
You have a right to represent yourself in court
in a civil case. If you choose to represent yourself, the court
will hold you to the same standards as if you were a lawyer.
Some cases are simple and straightforward. Others
are complex and difficult. You need to consider the complexities
and specific issues involved in your case and what is at stake
for you when deciding whether to go ahead without a lawyer.
If you find, as your case proceeds, that representing yourself
is too difficult, you may have the option at that time to hire
a lawyer to represent you.
should I consider before deciding to represent myself?
How hard it will be to represent yourself
depends on your individual case. Many people have successfully
represented themselves. Others have gone to court and found
that their case was more complicated or that the court process
was more difficult than they expected.
These are some things to consider when
deciding whether to represent yourself:
- Are you good
at completing paperwork? For
example, do you complete your own income tax
forms? In most cases, there are forms to be completed.
In addition, there are times when you must tell
the court what you want in a written document
called a "motion." You
must create these written documents without the
court's assistance. All forms and documents filed
with the court should be easy to read - typed
if at all possible - and must comply with court
- Are you good
at meeting deadlines? Courts run on a schedule.
You will need to meet the court's deadlines.
Regardless of your other commitments, including
your job, your childcare arrangements and other
personal responsibilities, you must appear in
court whenever you are scheduled to do so. If
you do not comply with court deadlines and court
procedures, there will be consequences and you
may lose your chance to have your case heard
by the court.
- Are you comfortable
speaking in public? You will need to be able
to tell your story in a formal setting in front
of other people. The judge, the opposing party,
or his or her lawyer, may ask questions and challenge
your version of events. Some issues are very
emotional, and you will need to remain calm.
- Do you have
written documents or witnesses to help you present
your story? You need to gather all documents related
to your case, organize them and bring them to court.
You will also need to prepare your witnesses to testify.
There are complex rules of evidence that
govern whether you can present this information in court,
and if so, how to present it.
- Are you prepared
to spend time looking things up in a library or on
the Internet? Most
cases require learning about the law, procedures
and rules. You may need to do research on a wide
variety of issues, including whether your problem
is one the court can help resolve and how to
present your case to the court.
- Does the other
side have a lawyer? Lawyers are trained professionals.
Many spend years learning how to present cases in the
courtroom and studying the law. Although you may be
able to handle your case, if the other side has a lawyer,
it may be more difficult for you.
C. What if the other side has a lawyer
and I don't?
In a civil case it is not unusual for one side
to have a lawyer while the other side does not. If you do not
have a lawyer but the other side does, you need to understand
these things about that lawyer's role:
- The lawyer's responsibility
is always to his or her client, that is, the other
party. The lawyer must do what is best for his or her
- It is not
the other side's lawyer's responsibility to help
you with your case. In fact, the lawyer for the other
side should not give you any advice except to get
your own lawyer and is not allowed to tell you what
he or she thinks the judge will do.
The lawyer should not pressure you or suggest
that you take any particular action. Do not rely on advice
from a lawyer who is representing the other side.
This does not mean that the lawyer for the other side cannot talk to you.
The other side's lawyer will have to talk to you in order to represent his
or her client. He or she can express an opinion, argue for a particular outcome
and try to negotiate a settlement. You are always free to disagree. If you
feel pressured by the lawyer on the other side, you should tell the judge.
Representing yourself when the other
side has a lawyer can be intimidating, especially if the case
goes to trial. Be aware that in many civil cases, there are
ways to resolve a case without going through a trial. You can
get a third party involved to help you and the other side resolve
the case. This could be a probation officer, housing specialist
or other person who works for the court, depending on what
court you are in and what type of case you have. It could also
be someone from outside the court, if the parties agree. You
and the other side might decide to take advantage of alternative
dispute resolution services, commonly referred to as ADR services.
See Section X: Settling the Case.
D. Can I hire a lawyer to handle part of my case?
In some circumstances, it may be possible for you
to hire a lawyer to handle only partof your case. In a few of
the courts, lawyers are permitted to provide "limited assistance
representation." Limited assistance representation means
that the client and the lawyer have agreed that the lawyer will
perform specific tasks on the case, but the client will be responsible
for other tasks. For example, the client and the lawyer may agree
that thelawyer will provide legal advice on one or more issues,
or will prepare or review certain documents - but that the lawyer
will not go to court or assist the client in otherways. The client
and lawyer also may agree that the lawyer will appear in court
for one or more events, but not for the whole case.
In courts where limited assistance representation
is permitted, it still may not be suitable in a particular case.
If you are considering hiring a lawyer to handle only a portion
of your case, you should check with a lawyer to find out whether
it is allowed and whether it makes sense in your case.