Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.

4/27/2019

Perils of Pro Se

A pro se defendant is one who represents himself and has no legal counsel present. It’s a common occurrence in Justice Court to see one or both sides self-represent. It’s not necessarily a bad thing despite the adage that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

Individuals in court are likely, especially at the Justice Court level, to appear pro se because of economics. Hiring an attorney to represent you in court can cost anywhere from $50 to $1000 an hour depending upon the circumstances of the case, the lawyer’s experience, location, operating expenses, and education. When you’re suing your neighbor to recover the cost of repairs for your fence that total $500, it makes little sense to hire an attorney who charges at the rate of $100 per hour. Preparation of court filings and court appearances can easily exceed what you would hope to secure in judgment. Likewise, with a class C misdemeanor when the most the fine will be is $500 plus court costs.

Most of the cases I see have one or both parties self-represented. In civil cases, I often see both parties before me as pro se. These are often small claims cases that can revolve around one party wanting monetary compensation from the other. A mechanic gets sued in small claims court when a customer wants a refund for shoddy work. A landlord seeks money for property damages from a tenant. In these situations, a bench trial is the general result. We meet, we talk, both sides get heard and I render a verdict. I run these rather informally and the parties have no disadvantages for appearing pro se.

Where it gets tricky is when one party wants a jury trial, particularly in a criminal case. While we can and do see jury trials in civil matters, by far most jury trials are for criminal cases. In these cases, the state is represented by an attorney from the County Attorney’s office. This means one side has legal knowledge and experience in trials. The defendant, if they choose to self-represent, has some serious disadvantages. They won’t be aware of or comfortable with court proceedings. They may have some legal or professional knowledge they feel will help them, but they are likely not familiar with the order and procedure for trial. They may not have experience in presenting a persuasive argument.

In my court, we have an entire page on our website dedicated to self-represented litigants with links to various Texas legal assistance websites, links to the Texas Justice Court Training Center’s desk books, the Texas Rules of Evidence, and Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. I’m looking to add links on criminal court procedures as well. I even have information on how to print out text messages as evidence.

Representing yourself in Justice Court is commonplace and economical. To succeed and present your best case, however, takes preparation.

Here are some best practices to help you out:

Bring ALL possible evidence with you. This means copies of bills, printouts of original emails or email chains, printouts of text messages, pertinent copies of bank statements and credit card statements, photographs, etc. If you enter something into evidence, you will most likely not get it returned to you. If it’s something you need for your personal records, bring copies.

Review court procedure before you get to court. Knowing what to expect takes out some of the intimidation factor. If you want, feel free to come and observe a similar proceeding. The only time you will not be allowed in court is during juvenile cases.

If you’ve requested a jury trial, review those specific court procedures. Knowing the order of how events will unfold will be a big help. Understand that there is a time and place for your testimony and when that is. Understand when to object, when to ask for an opportunity to respond to the prosecutor and when to ask for a sidebar. Think about what questions to ask a jury panel to determine possible individuals to strike from the jury.

Practice your opening statement or testimony before hand. Take the time to write it out, review it and rehearse it. Don’t try and wing it.

Make sure you remember all the pertinent details Write them down so if asked, you can respond. There will often be a substantial delay between filing of a case or citation and a court appearance. Make these notes while your memory is fresh and review them before court.

They say clothes make the man (or woman). I’m not one to stress over dress codes, but when you are representing yourself in a jury trial, you’re not trying to impress me. The jury may well see things differently. Wear your Sunday best.

Understand the appeal process. There are costs associated with appealing a judgment – filing fees and appeal bonds. Find out what to expect.

Preparing to represent yourself in a legal matter is no small task. It takes time and effort to research law, procedures, fill out documents and prepare evidence. Understanding this is key.

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