When You Need to Represent Yourself in Court

Attorney Mayo offers tips for Pro-Se litigants
Jonathan D. Mayo, Esq.

A sad fact is, legal fees are often beyond the reach of many people, and many choose instead to proceed "pro se," representing themselves in the legal issue at hand.

But pro se litigants need not rely solely on their own resources in taking necessary steps towards legal success. Limited-Assistance representation for example, allows pro se parties to consult with an Attorney for limited help with forms, procedure and filing. Lawyer of the Day Programs can also guide pro se litigants with limited advice and help with forms. More resources here.

Identify your Claim.

If you are proceeding with your own action, as opposed to answering someone else's action, it is up to you to confidently identify the claims you seek to litigate. Just because some harm occurred does not necessarily mean that legal remedies are available. Only clear, identifiable claims should be acted upon pro se. Be cautious, as well, not to take on material that is beyond your skill set. As initial legal consultations are free, one might consult an attorney to clarify strategy. And remember if you are responding to the legal action of another you may be able to assert claims of your own, but must do so in timely fashion.

Focus on the Elements and Facts.

For any legal claim the law assigns a list of elements that must be proven in order to succeed on such a claim. The Pro-se litigant must always be aware of these elements, and confident that  facts in their case satisfy each. Similarity between one's current facts and those found in case law can bolster a pro-se litigant's case, provided that the case is controlling in the Court where the current case resides, and the claim, element or issue cited in that favorable case is the same as the one currently being litigated. Careful use of case law can make or break a pro se litigant's case.  Seek advice of an Attorney, even on a limited basis, for questions about case law.

Research Tips

Most Attorneys use paid research services such as Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis, but for the pro se litigant free research resources abound. For example Google Scholar allows state specific case searches.  Google Docs may contain templates and examples of certain legal documents for the pro se litigant. Massachusetts General Laws are available online. Mass Courts allow public searches of civil dockets to check pendency of cases, or note previous actions against interested parties. Massachusetts Court Forms are available online.  Most Massachusetts Registries of Deeds, including Barnstable offer free public searches of deeds and other documents, to inform pro-se litigants. Many reputable law offices offer valuable articles on various legal matters. That being said, be wary of articles that don't provide references. In the final analysis, the specific rules of substance and procedure govern. When in doubt, check the rules. To get case law, use the rule number and section that concerns you as your search term.

Statutes of Limitation

Understand too that legal claims can be "dead in the water" under "Statutes of Limitations," which set a shelf life for certain claims. Massachusetts' Statutes of Limitation can be found here.

Know Your Practical Limits

Avoid launching pro se efforts without seriously looking at the complexity of the subject at hand. Generally small claims are a good candidate for pro se representation. Many family law litigants proceed pro se as well. Lastly, probate matters can and frequently are handled pro se by fiduciaries. Thankfully Barnstable County Lawyer of the Day program, as mentioned above, provides limited assistance for family law and probate matters Monday through Friday. Also,  court clerks are a valuable resource for providing forms and checklists to pro se litigants.

In Conclusion

This discussion is just meant to provide the basics. While this may contain notes and opinions on the law, it does not constitute legal advice, or create an attorney-client relationship with readers. Readers should consult an attorney before making any major decisions on issues noted here.

Thanks for taking the time to visit this page, and feel free to contact me at [email protected], or at 508-771-1373.


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