Do You Need An Attorney... or Can You Represent Yourself?
There are many circumstances in the United States when a person is entitled to represent himself in legal matters. The Supreme Court has found that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution which guarantees the right to counsel also allows a person to represent himself at trial. Similarly, many states have constitutional provisions which allow self representation. However, this right to self representation has limits and there are certain circumstances when legal counsel is necessary.
What is Pro Se Representation?
An individual who represents himself in a litigation matter is called a pro se litigant. A pro se litigant has the right to call witnesses, make petitions of the court and otherwise zealously represent himself in a court of law.
There is no requirement that a pro se litigant be an attorney or have any legal training. However, by definition a pro se litigant may only represent himself. He may not represent other people because if he did he would be guilty of the unauthorized and unlicensed practice of law.
For individuals who wish to represent themselves, there are state and private resources available to help them. Many state bar associations provide assistance to pro se litigants. The internet and law schools also have legal materials available.
When is Pro Se Representation Prohibited?
Most state laws limit pro se representation when the pro se litigant is acting not only on his own behalf but also on behalf of others. For example:
- Representation of a Corporation: generally, a licensed attorney must represent a corporation in a legal proceeding. This is to protect the rights of all of the corporation’s shareholders.
- Representation of a Probate Estate: similarly, a licensed attorney must represent a probate estate. Generally, an executor may not act pro se because the rights of all potential heirs and beneficiaries must be adequately protected.
Further, while many pro se litigants may act on their own behalf at trial that does not give every pro se litigant the right to proceed without counsel. For example:
- Appeals: Most Federal Court of Appeals do not generally allow pro se litigants to present arguments before the court.
- Judicial Discretion: Sometimes a trial judge has concerns about a pro se litigant’s ability to adequately defend himself or about a pro se litigant’s ability to maintain the decorum of the courtroom and not be disruptive to the proceedings. In those cases, the judge may determine that the pro se litigant needs the advice of a licensed attorney who can advice him behind the scenes or at trial. The judge may also appoint counsel if necessary.
When is Pro Se Representation Discouraged?
There are also situations when an individual may be legally entitled to represent himself but when it might not be a good idea. For example, if you are a defendant in a criminal trial and your liberty is at stake then it is often advisable to retain counsel or to have counsel appointed to you. Also, if you are involved in a complicated bankruptcy or civil proceeding where the outcome could greatly affect your personal finances, an attorney’s help is advisable.
Only you can decide if you are competent to represent yourself and if you are willing to take the risks associated with proceeding as a pro se litigant. If you are unsure about how to proceed it is worth discussing your case with the local bar association or a licensed attorney in order to get a better idea of how to proceed.
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