Posner’s resignation is a powerful reminder of the challenges pro se litigants continue to face. His belief that pro se litigants are frequently mistreated in civil litigation and denied a full and fair opportunity to vindicate their claims is neither new nor limited to federal appellate courts.3 Numerous legal commentators have expressed similar concerns.4 Yet, though the belief that pro se litigants are underserved by the legal community is widespread, the full extent of the challenges they face in court is still only partially understood.
This book can guide you through nearly every kind of trial in every court system (state or federal) because the litigation process is remarkably uniform throughout all of them. In part, this is because federal courts and most state courts share a “common law” heritage—a way of trying cases that came over from England and developed along with the country. And, in part, it is because many local procedures are consistent with national legal codes (sets of rules and regulations).
The BIGGEST mistake pro se litigants make is thinking they know more than they do, as a way of overcompensating for lack of confidence. False bravado can lead you into mistakes #2, #3, and #4 on this list and a whole lot more. You don’t bring a court reporter because you don’t feel you need one. You don’t do research because you don’t have time, and you think you know enough. You react to or challenge every lawyer trick because you believe, without any evidence, that it’s the best thing to do. You talk about admiralty law, not because you know anything about it or where it fits into your case, but because you heard someone talk about it. You file the wrong motions in the wrong situations. It’s important to know what you don’t know and act accordingly. Instead of talking about sovereign citizenship, talk about and use civil procedure. Rather than reacting to lawyer antics, judicial bias or a sense of unfairness, focus on your case. Learn it backwards and forwards, and then bring your court reporter. That’s how you win. See Sovereign Citizens Make Pro Se Litigants Look Silly for more about the “problem” with sovereign citizens.
“In little more than a year the clinic has built confidence in the justice system for many pro se litigants. Our legal staff and volunteers have been able to make the process less confusing for clinic visitors and guide them in the right direction, which improves their chances for satisfactory outcomes,” said Robyn Tarnofsky, the director of the clinic.
Though arbitration proceedings are generally less formal than trials, most of the principles described in this book also apply to arbitration. As in a trial, you and your adversary present evidence to the arbitrator through your own testimony and the testimony of witnesses. Like a judge, an arbitrator evaluates the credibility and legal significance of evidence to decide whether you win or lose the case.
Many lawyers routinely ask clients to pay a “retainer”—a deposit or advance fee—that is kept in a trust account and used as services are provided. Your legal coach may ask for a retainer in order to see that you are serious and have the money to pay. However, you shouldn’t be expected to come up with a large amount of money, because you do not plan on running up high legal bills. A fee of more than $500 is excessive, especially before you know whether the legal coach relationship is really working out.
There’s no way to avoid it: If you represent yourself in court, you’re going to run into a lot of unfamiliar legal terminology. This book tries to translate the most common jargon into plain English. For quick reference, check the glossary at the back of the book. You can find more plain-language definitions in Nolo’s online legal dictionary, available for free at www.nolo.com.
With that said, some breaches of procedure by a pro se litigant are important, while others are not. To navigate these inevitable breaches to the benefit of a client, counsel must determine how the court generally views such breaches and take steps to ensure the court understands when the breaches are material (e.g., the breach prejudices a party unfairly). However, even potentially armed with such knowledge, the court may have a “tendency to stretch or ignore the procedural rules in the pro se litigant’s favor.” Id. at 50. While counsel can continually remind the court that the pro se litigant must be held to the same standard as an attorney, “some courts may still regard procedural breaches as relatively unimportant.” Id. Thus, it becomes imperative “to convince the court that the procedural breach is a serious matter.” Id. In other words, counsel must educate the court in both a succinct and compelling way—whether through an oral objection or appropriate written means—that the pro se litigant’s procedural failure is unduly prejudicial to counsel’s client, the court, the administration of justice generally, or some or all of these.
96. For a discussion from the early 2000s, see Bloom and Hershkoff, 16 Notre Dame J L, Ethics & Pub Pol at 488–97 (cited in note 74). To the extent that this is a risk, a follow-up study could be conducted by surveying the current practices of district courts and then using a similar method to the one employed in this Comment to check whether differences in current district court practices are impacting more recent outcomes for pro se litigants.
What to do? Here are 10 suggestions for reforming the way courts deal with self represented individuals. A few are already being implemented (usually hesitantly and on a small scale) here and there by isolated courts. And there has been one truly magnificent effort, by the Family Law Division of the Superior Court for Maricopa County, Arizona to throw open court procedures to non-lawyers. For the most part, the suggestions set out here require not money but changes in attitude, rules and procedures.
This surprisingly easy hack is one that can be done anytime, anywhere--and is rarely done enough. People underestimate the power of an erect spine or a rigid stance. Carrying yourself like you are proud to be who you are indirectly gives your brain feedback that you are indeed a lovely human, so that you subsequently positive feelings about yourself. Who knew the body could be such a powerful tool?
Table 2D shows the most common types of litigation in federal district courts and the frequency with which each type of case involves a pro se plaintiff or defendant. Pro se plaintiffs bring a disproportionately large percent of civil rights and employment discrimination cases. In contrast, pro se plaintiffs rarely bring other types of cases, such as products liability, contract, asbestos, and insurance cases.86 Table 2D also shows that the only types of cases that frequently involve pro se defendants are property cases, which are primarily foreclosure proceedings.87 Perhaps the most important takeaway from Table 2D is that a substantial proportion of many types of cases are brought by pro se plaintiffs. Though there is significant variance—pro se litigants bring 32 percent of civil rights cases but bring a more modest 8 percent of cases involving the government and 2 percent of insurance and product liability cases—pro se litigants are prevalent across many types of cases. Any reforms targeting just one type of lawsuit cannot fully address the scope of issues faced by pro se litigants.
Do I have a basic understanding of how court procedures work? Custody hearings, and court procedures in general, can be quite confusing for first-timers. Parents considering pro se representation usually benefit from attending a couple of court hearings in advance, just to become more familiar with what to expect in court and what proper court etiquette looks like. (And remember: any questions you have about proper court procedures can always be addressed to the court clerk. So seek that person out and develop a friendly rapport with him or her.)
Limit the scope of trial. Pursuant to federal and state rules of evidence and procedure, courts are responsible for establishing ground rules to efficiently manage and regulate trial practice and trial testimony. This is especially important when trial involves a pro se party because the lack of substantive and procedural knowledge can create an ever-changing, and often ever-expanding, litigation framework. Accordingly, trial counsel should make use of pretrial briefing mechanisms—including motions in limine and bench memoranda—to limit the issues for trial. Pretrial briefing affords the pro se litigant the opportunity to have his or her voice heard on the issues while efficiently framing the matters for trial. If the rules of court do not impose page limits on the particular mode of briefing being used, trial counsel should ask the court to set a page limit to help focus the discussion. In addition, trial counsel should consider asking the court to allow the parties to submit in advance their questions for direct examination to both limit improper objections and further focus the testimony on relevant, admissible evidence.
There are some notable records of pro se litigants winning more than $2,000 as plaintiffs: Robert Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper who won more than $10 million from Ford for patent infringement; Dr. Julio Perez (District of Southern New York 10-cv-08278) won approximately $5 million in a federal jury trial from Progenics Pharmaceuticals for wrongful termination as a result of whistleblowing; Reginald and Roxanna Bailey (District of Missouri 08-cv-1456), a married couple, who together won $140,000 from Allstate Insurance in a federal jury trial; George M. Cofield, a pro se janitor, won $30,000 from the City of Atlanta in 1980; and Jonathan Odom, a pro se prisoner, who while still a prisoner, won $19,999 from the State of New York in a jury trial. Timothy-Allen Albertson, who appeared in pro. per., was awarded $3,500 in 1981 in a judgment by the San Francisco Municipal Court entered against the Universal Life Church for defamation by one of its ministers.
The Supreme Court noted that "[i]n the federal courts, the right of self-representation has been protected by statute since the beginnings of our Nation. Section 35 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 73, 92, enacted by the First Congress and signed by President Washington one day before the Sixth Amendment was proposed, provided that 'in all the courts of the United States, the parties may plead and manage their own causes personally or by the assistance of counsel.'"