4 Steps to Representing Yourself in Court

“Can I defend myself in court?”

Short answer: Yes. You are constitutionally entitled to defend yourself in criminal or other courts of law.

Legal Self-Representation – What Does It Mean

The legal term for self-representation is pro se which is Latin for “on one’s own behalf.” 

When someone chooses to represent themselves in a legal proceeding, they are referred to a “self-represented litigant.” This refers to someone who files, pursues and responds to a legal case without retaining the professional counsel of a qualified attorney.

People choose to represent themselves in a court of law for a variety of reasons; some better than others. 

  • Some don’t have access to legal representation 
  • Prohibitive cost
  • A lack of knowledge regarding how to find a suitable lawyer 
  • A fatalistic, and often erroneous belief that their fate is sealed so they might as well take their chances on their own

These are just some of the reasons people use to justify choosing to represent themselves. 

Perhaps the defendant has full access to legal counsel, but is unconvinced of the seriousness of the consequences if they lose, or are unhappy with their current representation, and feel they could do better themselves. Maybe they are simply convinced of their own innocence, and cannot conceive of ever being found guilty.

In any event, while representing oneself in a court of law is not advised, those who choose to exercise their constitutional right to do so should be aware of what they are doing, and prepared for what comes next. Here are four steps to take when making the choice to represent yourself in a court of law. 

Step 1: Don’t Represent Yourself in A Court of Law

“…the man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client.”Che s’insegna & c.

Having discussed the reasons people might opt for self-representation, it is a point of professional ethics to take pains to go over just a few of the reasons why anyone who goes before a judge, jury, or has any other legal proceedings in front of them, is strongly advised to seek the counsel of experienced professionals for proper legal representation. 

  • As a pro se petitioner, it is the sole responsibility of the defendant to be well versed and in full compliance as it relates to the rules and proceedings of the court. At no time will a judge, officer, or any member of court staff do anything at all to help or hinder the litigant who has chosen to represent themselves.

Even experienced lawyers; especially experienced lawyers, always retain legal counsel where necessary.

  • As the principal in the case, emotions will likely run very high. Depending on the seriousness of the charges or consequences, it may be difficult to maintain the proper emotional distance when in the heat of courtroom proceedings. Experienced legal representation is trained to remain detached and professional even when the courtroom atmosphere gets intense.
  • When emotionally agitated, and with a less than adequate command of the law in the courtroom, it is very possible for the pro se litigant to make statements and erroneous assertions that do far more harm than good to their case, and can even inadvertently incriminate themselves. 

It’s Just Not Worth It

In a case where a person’s freedom, family or finances are on the line, it is simply not worth saving a few dollars at the cost of proper legal defense or representation. Let those who have been extensively schooled in the finer points of criminal and civil law do the job they have been trained to do. 

Step 2: Become Acquainted with Every Possible Aspect of Your Case

It is vital to know and understand all rules and procedures that are applicable to your case. This includes having thorough knowledge of all court rules and administrative orders that apply. 

This is the time to gather any available information from the Florida Bar, and to become familiar with what to expect in a courtroom situation. Visit the nearest law library, and examine the various Florida statutes and rules of court procedure that are likely to be relevant to your case. 

Understand that different cases and different districts all have different rules and protocols that must be adhered to, so it is imperative that exhaustive study of any and all possible laws, statutes, procedures and relevant cases be conducted. 

Visit courtrooms and observe where allowed, to gain a real time understanding of how courtroom proceedings are handled, and take thorough notes for referencing later.

It is absolutely essential to adhere to the letter of the law when moving through the progression of a courtroom case and all the steps that lead up to it, so make sure no stone remains unturned in the preparation and research for your case.

Step 3: File All Forms Properly and Promptly When Representing Yourself in Court 

When one is a self-representing litigant, all petitions, statements of claim or other documentation must be filed according to the directions laid out by Florida state law. If a case has been brought against a pro se petitioner, the response to the court must be filed properly and as directed.

Establish which documents need to be filed in person and which can be e-filed. Take care to have documents notarized if necessary, make sure any other parties have been served if applicable, and retain multiple copies of every document filed with a court clerk. Be aware of filing fees, and how to have them waived if possible.

Step 4: Courtroom Protocol & Behavior When Representing Yourself 

As a pro se petitioner, it is your responsibility to attend to every single detail when it comes to moving your case forward. You must serve all notices to other parties, call every witness, demand discovery, file all motions, meet all deadlines and lay out your case before a judge at a hearing. 

All the time you have spent studying, researching, observing, and otherwise preparing is about to pay off. But you must be prepared to adjust and adapt to real time courtroom interaction, and to be able to handle the various pressures and protocols that are expected of you.

Be on Time 

It is your responsibility to appear before the court on time. Make sure you arrive on time by planning your route, and even doing a dry run beforehand to scout parking or public transit hiccups and make sure you encounter no nasty surprises the day of the trial.

Remain Professional

Generally, civil cases have a preliminary hearing where the judge examines the information as it has been filed by the court, hears from the parties regarding why they are before the court and how they would like the judge to rule. Criminal cases will have an arraignment where the judge hears your ostensible not guilty plea, will consider any bail requests or requests for denial of bail and establishes the date for the next proceeding.

  • Maintaining a professional demeanor at all times is expected, so dress appropriately, like you would to meet a dignitary or political official
  • Refer to the judge as “your honor” or “the court” and never argue with the judge or opposing parties
  • Wait patiently for your turn to present your case

Be Prepared

According to the judge’s discretion, they may be sent to mediation, or given instruction on the next steps and dates for any further preliminary hearings. Be prepared to have the judge reject certain pieces of evidence, and ensure that multiple copies of any allowable evidence are at arm’s reach. 

Have Answers When Needed

Part of the courtroom experience when representing oneself is knowing what to do and when to do it. Armed with your knowledge of the particulars of your case, and understanding of the laws and statutes surrounding your case, know when to ask for evidence, when to examine and cross examine witnesses, as well as when to ask questions of and object to the prosecution’s tactics.

Be Honest and Forthright

Have a working knowledge of how the legal system operates, be organized, and above all, tell the truth. This entire ordeal is vastly more manageable when you stick to the facts and tell the truth, even when it appears to work against you. It is easier to remember one story than it is to stretch the truth, risk your credibility and expose yourself to further charges for lying under oath.

While representing yourself in a court of law is still strongly not recommended, adhering to these guidelines will offer the best possible chance to represent yourself in court and win. 

If after reading this, you’ve decided representing yourself in court is not in your best interest, call Smith & Eulo Law Firm. With years of experience and the case results to prove it, we provide the best legal representation in Central Florida, Tampa and Jacksonville. With so much at stake, great legal representation is worth every dollar.