What Is Pro Se Representation, and Is It a Bad Idea?
Posted: April 3, 2023
There’s an old saying that “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” While scholars debate who originated this adage, it portrays a popular sentiment: that choosing to be your own lawyer is a generally bad idea. But pro se representation, as it is legally known, has a long history in the American legal system and is actually more common than you may think.
The Right to Represent Yourself in Court
According to the Sixth Amendment, all criminal defendants have the right to legal counsel. While this means that anyone charged with a crime can hire a lawyer to defend them (or have one provided to them at no cost, in most cases), the law also states that “...parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel” — meaning that you do not need to have a lawyer if you don’t want one. Instead, you can choose to invoke pro se representation and handle your own case.
According to US law, in order to utilize pro se representation, you need to formally reject your right to counsel knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently. While there are no specific criteria for this codified into law, in most cases, the presiding judge will determine whether or not you fully understand your rights and the situation before allowing you to appear without a lawyer.
The term pro se representation comes from Latin, with the words “pro se” meaning “for oneself.” In the United Kingdom, there is a similar option to pro se representation called being a “litigant in person.”
Potential Risks of Pro Se Representation
While there are many reasons why you may choose to speak in court on your own behalf, there are a number of potential downsides to consider.
The most obvious reason to get counsel is knowledge. Lawyers' entire jobs are to know the laws and understand how court cases are handled. As much as you may know the details of your own case, the legal system is complex. Attempting to navigate it alone without the help of a qualified attorney can make things more difficult for you than they already are. There may be laws relevant to your case that you are unaware of or legal tools you might miss.
The other main downside to pro se representation is missing out on professional courtroom skills. You may be good at arguing, but lawyers are experienced in the precise sort of debate that is required to win court cases.
Despite these drawbacks, many people still choose to speak for themselves. According to the Judiciary Data and Analysis Office (JDAO) of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, there are more than 70,000 cases involving pro se representation each year. While self-representation is not confined to any one type of case, it’s interesting to note that the majority of pro se cases come from civil actions filed by people serving time in prison.
Family law is the other area in which pro se representation is commonplace. 80-90% of the million+ family law cases nationwide include at least one self-represented party. This means that 46 million self-represented litigants are appearing in courts across the country every year—trying to handle their own divorce, child custody, child support, guardianship, adoption, housing/eviction, debt collection, and other legal matters.
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