Self-represented civil litigants often find themselves at a disadvantage in court. A number of factors contribute to this, including unfamiliarity with the legal process, lack of training and disdain held by some lawyers and even judges for pro se litigants. Want a fighting chance with the court system? Go into court with a certain demeanor. Some suggestions are discussed below.
The inability to afford a lawyer is nothing to be ashamed of. Shame makes you hang your head, refuse to appear in court, get defensive or even make a deal that does not benefit you. Take a different attitude. Act as if you were the rightful owner of some money; they took it from you, then had the nerve to sue. This approach is best with big companies. Today’s courtrooms are packed with people who’ve been sued by a company that wants to collect on a debt, foreclose on a house or repo a car. Since businesses reward lawmakers for their support, they consistently get away with behaviors that harm consumers–refusing to pay insurance premiums, making fake foods for us to eat, not paying their fair share of taxes and suing thousands of citizens daily. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Still, citizens are the ones that feel ashamed. Don’t.
What stops most people from representing themselves? Fear. We’ve all experienced it. You don’t know the rules. The judge has lots of power. The lawyer knows far more than you do. The lawyer and judge are talking, and you’re striving to understand what they’re saying. You wonder why you bothered to show up. It’s scary, but don’t run. Lawyers rely on fear, intimidation and lack of knowledge. I once had an attorney say to me, “I’m a lawyer, I can keep this up for years.” This was after I appealed a summary judgment order and won. He didn’t want to drop the case–a three year $1500 case. He said this to imply that he would wait me out, an intimidation tactic. When you’re scared and intimidated, you might be inclined to give up or accept a bad settlement offer. Don’t. Keep fighting through the fear, learn more and understand the necessary laws. Then, if a lawyer says something designed to scare you, make him or her pay for it.
The best attitude to take to court is insight about your case, the law and attorney/judge behaviors. Most often, insight is gained from experience. The first time something happens, you say, “I should have…” The next time it happens, you’re ready for it. Here’s an example. In a court in Georgia, we filed a Motion to Disqualify an attorney because she was representing two different clients in a matter in which one (an employee) contradicted the other (her boss). This was a conflict and unethical. One of the parties in the case filed for a dismissal. The judge heard the dismissal first and granted it. The attorney who was the subject of the Motion to Disqualify signed her name to the dismissal, and our case was over. We learned from that. When a similar issue arose in Florida, we insisted that the judge hear the Motion to Disqualify before any other motions. She did. It was only proper.
In another case, we appeared in court on one of our motions, and the judge initially ignored us, speaking to the attorney for the other side as if we weren’t there. This happens often, so beware of it. The next time it happened, we politely interrupted and reminded the judge that it was our motion set for hearing. We’ve also learned to take a court reporter to hearings. Always. This could get expensive, but it’s crucial to fair-play. You’ll be amazed how accommodating a judge can be when there’s a chance their comments will appear in the record. Even lawyers curtail the intimidation. Never would you hear, “I’m a lawyer, I can keep this up for years.” Learn from your experiences and those of other litigants. Learn case and statutory law as well as the rules of civil procedure and court conduct. Be respectable of judges and lawyers. This does not mean rollover. It means use what you’ve learned to best represent yourself.
Take a revolutionary attitude to court. For too long, the US court system has been the exclusive domain of lawyers and judges. Pro se litigants are barely tolerated. A cursory sweep of lawyer websites will show a plethora of derogatory or patronizing comments about pro se litigants. Some refer to us as “the pro se” (kinda like a species of animal). They refer to dealing with “pro ses” as cleaning up messes. They make poor attempts to voice concerns about legal “wounds” caused by self-representation. They rail about our lack of experience, calling us ignorant, self-destructive, unethical and sometimes even mentally ill. We don’t follow procedure. We don’t learn the rules in full. We don’t know how to behave. Blah blah blah.
Yet, is there a horde of lawyers refusing to use unfair practices to get a win against pro se litigants? No. A stampede of barristers condemning large companies for using the court system as a collection agency? No. A massive turning away by lawyers of foreclosure cases that are replete with lies, fake papers, robo-signers and other legal problems? No. Any lawyers denying representation to insurance companies that refuse to pay for legitimate losses? No. Instead, we hear whining about why they as lawyers have to face a person who has not gone to law school. Boo hoo. In order to make our justice system accountable, we need to go to court. So what if we do it wrong. So what if we’re not perfect. We have a right to be there. The courts should be packed with people like us. We own them. If they don’t work for us, we should make them inoperable with our presence.