Representing Yourself in Court

Acting as your own lawyer in court is a legal right in the United States, but it can be fraught with pitfalls for the unwary.

There are many situations in which you may be able to successfully represent yourself, but most experts agree that if you are facing a criminal charge that carries a jail sentence -- meaning the state is trying to deprive you of your liberty -- you should hire an attorney. In this one case, if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

If you will be suing someone in small claims court, it makes sense to represent yourself. Small Claims or Magistrate Court proceedings are generally less formal than State or Superior Court and were created with the intent to be accessible to people representing themselves. Small claims courts are available to resolve disputes for a dollar amount up to $15,000 in Georgia.

You can represent yourself in more formal court proceedings, but you should carefully weigh the risks and benefits before doing so. You need to compare the cost of hiring an attorney to the advantages of having someone experienced acting on your behalf. While hiring an attorney will cost money, it may be cheaper in the long run.

The decision really comes down to three questions:

  1. Do you have the time and energy to pursue the matter on your own?

  2. How complex is the area of law for your situation?

  3. What are the consequences to you if you are unsuccessful in representing yourself in the matter?

The advantages of hiring an attorney to represent you in court include the following:

  • The law is complicated and changes on a regular basis.

  • Attorneys are trained in the law and know the rules and procedures.

  • Attorneys are trained to recognize legal problems and solve them.

  • Attorneys are trained to investigate and evaluate the facts.

  • The rules and procedures for litigation (going to court) are complicated.

  • An attorney will already be familiar with the rules and procedures for litigation.

  • You won't have to spend the time and energy learning the rules and procedures.

  • The attorney you hire will be skilled in representing parties with disputes in your specific subject matter.

  • An attorney will be skilled in methods of obtaining a positive result, including filing a lawsuit, going to court, and resolving the matter.

  • An attorney will listen to your specific, individual, legal problem and proceed based on knowledge of your problem and his or her experience.

If you wish to represent yourself in State or Superior Court, please take into consideration the following:

  • The office of the Clerk of Court may not distribute forms for you to use nor can they suggest which forms are necessary for your case. However, you may research closed cases and make copies to use as examples in filling out paperwork.

  • Employees also cannot offer legal advice, including advice as to whether all paperwork has been completed properly or not. They are only allowed to accept your paperwork for filing and charge the appropriate filing fee.

  • If the paperwork is not completed properly, you may be required to redo it, resulting in the case being rescheduled for the next term of court; or it may be thrown out of court. The Clerk of Court, therefore, encourages anybody wishing to act as his/her own lawyer to consult with an attorney before submitting any paperwork.

Representation for No Fee or Reduced Fee

There are a couple of situations in which it is possible to be represented by an attorney for free or a reduced fee.

If you have been injured and decide to sue, you may be able to hire an attorney to represent you on a contingency fee basis. This means that you will pay attorney's fees, typically a percentage of the recovered amount, only if the attorney recovers money for you. The costs and fees of a case will be paid by you if you lose and are usually ordered to be paid by the losing party if you win.

If you are covered by insurance for the matter in which you are suing or being sued, you may be represented by an attorney for the insurance company at no additional charge other than what you have paid in insurance premiums.

If you can't afford to hire an attorney, you may qualify for some form of legal aid. Legal aid is provided for people with low incomes in several types of matters, including consumer credit, denial of certain types of government benefits, and eviction.

If your claim involves an important public policy or social justice issue, you may be able to obtain representation pro bono (for free or a reduced fee) from an attorney with an interest in the issue. These types of issues include various types of discrimination, sexual harassment in an employment situation, freedom of speech or religion, and environmental problems.