There is an old saying in the legal profession, “Any person who represents himself/herself has a fool for a client.” There is a very good reason why it is not wise to represent yourself in court on a legal matter. This article will discuss a few of those reasons and will provide a few expamples for you to consider.
First, in traffic matters, you will see many people representing themselves on minor traffic charges such as “no seatbelt”, “no proof of insurance”, etc. But even in minor traffic matters, a lack of knowledge of the law and consequences far too often results in a loss of driving privileges or even incarceration.
I can’t recall the number of times I have sat in a traffic court and observed individuals (representing themselves) entering guilty pleas to traffic offenses. The attorneys all glance at each other and shake their heads knowing that these individuals just subjected themselves to license suspensions or even incarceration.
And there are some municipal courts imposing fines as high as $4,000.00, with the requirement that the Defendant pay the fine instanter (immediately) or go to jail. One such individual who chose to represent herself was incarcerated because she didn’t have the $4,000.00 to pay her fine before leaving the court building. After she was incarcerated, her family members decided to hire me to represent her. I was able to get her out of jail and convince the court to allow her to make monthly payments. This could have been avoided had she retained legal counsel prior to going to court. And, in fact, some of her traffic charges could have been reduced or dismissed.
Second, I recall a few years ago observing a young lady as she stood before the judge on a shoplifting charge. The item stolen was a $1.20 pair of tweezers (that’s right, one dollar and twenty cents). The lady stood relaxed under the impression that “it’s not a big deal.” She was representing herself. The judge sat back and listened to her story. Once she concluded her statement, the judge had the Sheriff’s Deputy take her into custody immediately. She was sentenced to served ten (10) days in jail for stealing a $1.20 pair of tweezers. The judge argued that it was the aggregate of all of the retail thefts, not the value of the item she stole.
Had she been represented by an attorney, I can virtually guarantee that she would not have spent any time in jail, and most likely the shoplifting charge would have been dismissed. Now she has a “theft by shoplifting” conviction on her record….a scar that will certainly impact her future employment opportunities. It should also be noted that the judge who sentenced her was the judge most favored by all attorneys practicing in that particular court building.
Third, consider the vast number of civil cases, everything from the “small claims” lawsuit to the firey contested divorce. Many people are sorely mistaken in believing that the judge or the court clerk is going to assist them in the proper preparation of their documentation or in the presentment of their evidence. Court clerks are quick to notify the pro se litigant that, “I can’t give you any legal advice”. The clerk then suggests that the litigant go to the law library and try to find a book to assist them in preparing their documents.
Perhaps, with all of the television court shows, people mistakenly believe that they can present their case in the same manner as they observe on the entertainment court programs. Not so. State and Superior Court judges have little patience with individuals appearing in court (pro se) with a lack of knowledge of the “Rules of Evidence.” And it can really become a zoo when a pro se litigant requests a jury trial.
Fourth, consider personal injury cases. Virtually all attorneys accept personal injury cases on a “contingency fee basis”, meaning that the client is not required to pay any attorney’s fee up front, and the attorney takes a percentage if settlement is reached or after winning a trial verdict. Yet, individuals frequently attempt to represent themselves because they don’t want to have to pay any attorney’s fee.
What typically results is, the individual does not adequately document the claim, obtain the proper treatment, and/or in many ways, seriously damages the case to the extent that an attorney (hired after the fact) has great difficulty attempting to undue the damage. Individuals who attempt to represent themselves on injury cases are going up against seasoned, experienced insurance claims representatives whose goal is to pay the least amount necessary to resolve a claim.
I have even had individuals seek to retain my services on injury cases after they already signed a general release. Sadly, I have to inform them that they no longer have a case. One individual signed a general release after the claims representative gave him a check for $200.00 (two hundred dollars). This individual was still in pain a year later.
Finally, I would like to point out that most attorneys will not represent themselves in legal matters, even after practicing law for many years. It is difficult to remain objective when you are a party to a legal action. There are all sorts of emotions: fear, doubt, uncertainty, anger, sadness, anxiety, etc. It is always best to have an advocate who is educated as to the law and procedure, who is knowledgable about the court and the judge, and who can objectively and clearly review the evidence and present a case or defense in court. In fact, the “X” factor is an attorney who has a favorable relationship with the judge and who can predict how the judge is likely to rule on issues invovled in the case.
Thus, before deciding to represent yourself in court, remember the saying, “Any person who represents himself/herself has a fool for a client.” And then reconsider your decision.