There is a good chance that you will have to deal with legal matters at some point in your life. Yet, if you are like most people, you do not have a lawyer on standby, and you will have this decision to make: hire an attorney or represent yourself.
There are many benefits to hiring a lawyer. For one thing, an experienced attorney can provide useful legal advice in both civil and criminal cases. On the other hand, retaining an attorney can be expensive.
The cost-benefit issue is why some people decide to represent themselves in legal matters as “pro se” litigants.
The Basics of “Pro Se”
“Pro se” is a Latin phrase meaning “for yourself” or “on your own behalf.”
In legal proceedings, a person is described as “pro se” when he or she chooses to proceed without an attorney. The pro se litigant represents him or herself in every aspect of legal proceedings, including in court if the case comes to that.
A person may opt for self-representation for various reasons.
Consider the following scenarios:
- A man is a defendant in a criminal case, accused of stealing a car. He believes he can do a better job of representing himself in a jury trial.
- A woman sues a car dealership for refusing to honor the warranty when her car’s engine gave out. Her case is a small claims case, so she decides to try to represent herself to save on attorney fees.
- A couple agrees to end their marriage. They find family law resources online and decide to try representing themselves in a simple divorce.
Each situation is unique, and what works in one case might not work in another. While proceeding pro se is an option, self-representation is not easy. There are positives and negatives to pro se representation, but the negatives definitely outweigh the positives in most cases and as a result, courts discourage self-representation.
The Positives of Being Pro Se
Taking your defense into your own hands can be very risky. Generally, the time and money saved up front by representing yourself are the only immediate benefits of self-representation.
Time is required to find an experienced lawyer to represent your case. First comes the online research and then the consultations.
If you are a criminal defendant, you have a right to a public defender if your income level qualifies you for one. You will not have to search for an attorney, but you will still need to meet with your court-appointed lawyer to fill him or her in on the particulars of your case.
Individuals who make the choice to proceed pro se save themselves the time it takes to find an attorney. However, the time you save at the front end of the process is greatly outweighed by the time you will have to spend throughout the court proceedings learning about the law and how to act in court.
Self-representation is a financially advantageous alternative to retaining a lawyer.
Hiring a lawyer usually means either paying a significant sum of money in advance as a retainer or paying a flat fee. Every attorney bills clients differently.
While you will be able to save the amount of money it would take to hire an attorney if you decide to represent yourself, you have to consider what that money is buying you. In criminal cases, your freedom and good name are on the line-priceless considerations for most people.
The Negatives of being Pro Se
Proceeding pro se involves many risks. There are significant disadvantages to self-representation. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Representing your own interests in legal matters is made more difficult due to your emotional investment in the case and expected inability to approach the matter objectively. Lawyers represent clients best from an objective viewpoint.
Here are the fundamental obstacles that pro se litigants are up against.
Lack of knowledge
One of the biggest things to consider is that the legal world is an entirely different world—one in which judges and lawyers are at ease. They are familiar with the required rules and procedures. They have the experience to feel confident and comfortable in a courtroom. They know what to expect and how to handle what will come next. They have fought and won cases.
Even though a pro se litigant is not an attorney, he or she is still required to abide by all of the complex rules and procedures of the legal system. Mistakes could have severe consequences, possibly affecting the outcome of your case.
Therefore, a pro se litigant must make an effort to learn the laws, rules of court and regulations of the state and court in which his or her case is taking place. South Carolina has several different courts, each with particular procedures and expectations.
For instance, federal district courts have different rules than state circuit courts or magistrate courts.
Lack of experience
The written rules and procedures of the legal world are just the beginning. Experience is the only way to learn the unwritten customs and expectations.
This puts pro se defendants at a disadvantage against seasoned attorneys who feel at home in the legal world. Pro se litigants’ lack of experience often means they may encounter bias from the opposing attorney and even the judge. This potential bias, combined with your inexperience, can make negotiating with the opposing party a challenge.
In addition to learning the law, criminal defendants must prepare for trial and negotiate with the prosecutor on their own without help.
The stress of pro se litigation is an emotional cost that will weigh on any person who opts for self-representation. Not only could a person’s lack of experience lead to sleepless nights full of worry, any mistakes that an attorney would not make could result in a conviction and the consequences of being convicted.
So, what should you do?
If you are facing legal action of any kind, you need to weigh the positives and negatives of being pro se. Ask yourself these questions:
- Can I be objective about my case, or am I too emotionally involved?
- Will I feel confident arguing my case in front of a judge, jury, opposing attorney and others present in the courtroom?
- Am I capable of, and do I have the time to learn all the required rules and regulations?
It is likely that you will have many thoughts weighing on your mind about your current situation and the implications for your future. You may be too overwhelmed to put in the time necessary to build a strong defense.
There is a reason attorneys have to go to law school and pass the Bar exam to practice law. Winning legal cases is not easy. In fact, pro se defendants rarely win their cases. That is why you hardly ever hear about cases in which pro se litigants were successful.
Your future is too important to leave up to chance. In most cases, the best decision you can make is to put your case in the hands of an experienced attorney.
If you think pro se may be the right choice for you, here is some information you will want to know:
1. What is a pro se litigant?
We have addressed this above, but here it is again: A pro se litigant is a person who chooses to act as his or her own attorney in legal proceedings.
If you have been charged with a crime and decide to represent yourself “pro se,” then you will be responsible for your defense against the criminal charge.
2. Can a pro se litigant issue subpoenas?
Yes, a pro se litigant can issue subpoenas on application to the clerk of court. A common reason to issue a subpoena is to get a witness to provide testimony in court.
3. Can a pro se litigant recover attorney fees?
No, a pro se litigant cannot recover attorney fees. Since a pro se litigant is choosing to represent him or herself, he or she does not have to spend money on attorney fees in the first place. That means there are no fees to recover.
4. How can I be pro se?
Being a pro se litigant is quite difficult. First, you need to read up on court procedures and ethics rules as well as the criminal statutes related to your case.
When you represent yourself, you must follow the same guidelines as an attorney. You will need to prepare for all of the steps that build up to your appearance in court, including negotiating with the opposing party and the pretrial conference.
5. Can a pro se defendant subpoena records?
Yes, a pro se defendant can subpoena records to get documents that are relevant to his or her case for production at a court proceeding.
6. Can a pro se litigant take depositions?
Yes, a pro se litigant may take depositions to gather evidence for his or her case, but only in a civil matter. Depositions are not allowed in criminal cases even by attorneys.
Do you have more questions about representing yourself in a criminal case in a South Carolina court?
Contact us to speak with an attorney at Kulp & Elliott. Timothy Kulp is a Board Certified Criminal Defense Lawyer in SC. Our firm can help you devise a plan for your defense. Whether you decide to represent yourself or retain the services of an experienced attorney, start by consulting with a lawyer trained to fight for your rights.
Call us at 843-853-3310, or fill out our online form.