5 Things To Consider Before You Decide To Represent Yourself In Civil Court

Your right to represent yourself in a civil case dates back to 1789, when the 1st Congress passed--and President George Washington signed--the Federal Judiciary Act.  

Since then, state and federal courts have seen a steady uptick in self-counselled--or pro se--plaintiffs and defendants.  Some pro se litigants felt competent enough in their legal knowledge to proceed without a lawyer; some have already reached an agreed settlement with the opposing party, so they feel counsel is unnecessary; some simply wish to avoid paying an attorney's retainer or contingency fees.  

If you've been in an accident--regardless who was at fault--and you're thinking about representing yourself in court, make sure you fully understand the gravity of this decision in its entire context. 

For claims of minor injury, self-representation may be worth considering.  Though the odds of success are measurably lower, the pro se litigant can easily learn about and prepare for a civil case.  By studying the applicable statutes and the civil court process, he or she can dodge attorney-related fees, expenses, and billing disputes--all while maintaining total control of the case's progress and substantially impacting its ultimate success or failure.  

However, for serious injuries and wrongful deaths, you unequivocally need a lawyer.  

"OK," you might be wondering, "but what if the insurance company already approached me with a good settlement offer?  What if it's glaringly obvious from the facts of the case who's at fault?  What if I waited too long to file, and I think the deadline has passed?"  It doesn't matter — there are no exceptions.

Any accident that results in grievous harm or loss of life--major car accidents, medical malpractice, and serious workplace injuries, for example--are completely unsuited for pro se litigation.  Here are 5 cut-and-dry reasons why you need an attorney to handle your serious injury and/or wrongful death claim: 

  1. Legal Knowledge:  You can study online resources day and night for months on end, but your lawyer has been doing this for years.  Each state has different laws governing the civil process, and they, in turn, are governed by the literally countless federal statutes and court decisions.  Residents of Alabama, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., are in a particularly delicate rut, as those states all follow the contributory negligence rule.
  2. Judicial Access:  After filing your claim and motioning for a discovery of facts, your attorney, as an officer of the court, will have unfettered access to court documents, testimonies, witnesses, and evidence that you--a private citizen--would not be entitled to without special, temporary permission.  Additionally, he or she will be able to quickly contact a judge, court clerk, and other court officials if necessary.
  3. Proper Investigation:  A professional, thorough investigation done by your representative(s) must be performed as soon as possible.  Your attorney's investigators will take pictures and statements.
  4. Scene Reconstruction:  Sometimes, in order to prove a case to a judge and/or jury, it's necessary to reconstruct elements of the accident scene.  Reconstructions must be created in a precise, scientific manner.  Most people do not possess the appropriate level of skills to professionally reconstruct an accident scene, and they probably don't know who to call for help, either.  A visual demonstration could be vital to your case.
  5. Expert Witnesses:  Serious, expensive injury claims often require the opinions of expert witnesses--some of whom may be ill-suited for the courtroom.  Your attorney knows from experience which experts will help you--and how to combat the statements of your opponent's expert witnesses. 

It's your right to represent yourself in court, but it can be harmful to exercise that right wantonly.  If your settlement is important to you--if you need it--then you should definitely talk to a lawyer, such as Sarkisian & Fleming