There are two widely recognized ways of representing yourself in civil court. You can use your judicial district's small claims court or you can file a lawsuit in superior court, known in legal terminology as in pro se or in propria persona, which is commonly referred to as in pro per. Both terms mean that you have chosen to represent yourself in court without an attorney.
Suing in Small Claims Court
In many civil matters, it's impractical to hire an attorney to sue someone on your behalf because the amounts in dispute don't justify the expense. Fortunately, every state has a court designed to remedy this problem – the small claims court. Small claims courts are designed for individual litigants to quickly get through claims below a certain dollar amount without the time and expense of a full-blown trial.
Small Claims Court Procedures
The first thing to know about small claims courts is that they are courts where parties can resolve some types of civil disputes at low cost. Procedures vary from one jurisdiction to another, as do the types of cases allowed, but they all have certain general characteristics:
- Dollar amounts are limited. They range from as little as $2,500 in Rhode Island and Kentucky to as much as $25,000 in Tennessee. Most states impose limits from $5,000 to $15,000.
- Some courts help with basic matters, such as filling out forms, serving the opposing party with notice of the suit and preparing subpoenas and depositions is usually available online. Many courts also have limited in-person legal assistance available.
- Many small claims courts, including in California, do not allow the use of attorneys in court. You can get legal help prior to trial in these jurisdictions, but you have to represent yourself in court.
Representing Yourself in Higher Court Isn't Easy
In most cases where the amounts in dispute exceed the limits of small claims courts, you should carefully consider the time and expertise required to sue in pro per or pro se – that is, without using an attorney. The procedural demands in higher trial courts (called superior courts, district courts or circuit courts in many states) are considerable. A typical trial court case may have several preliminary law and motion hearings before the trial itself. There may also be subpoenas that have to be written and served, and in-person interrogations, called depositions, to be scheduled where either party prepares a set of questions, or interrogatories, that the other side must answer. Each of these stages has its own deadlines and rules. While some judges extend themselves to help pro se plaintiffs in court, others do not. Opposing parties often pounce on technical violations committed by pro se plaintiffs to get the case thrown out. Neither opposing parties nor the court will overlook violations of the many deadlines and procedural requirements that occur in the course of a superior court lawsuit.
Business entities cannot represent themselves in these courts in most jurisdictions. If you own a business and you want your business to sue someone, you'll need to get a lawyer.
How to Prepare to Sue in a Higher Court
Describing in detail how to sue a defendant on your own in superior court is beyond the scope of this article, but there are a few general points that are essential to observe if you decide to proceed:
- Preparation is essential. Your opposing counsel will likely be a licensed attorney with extensive court experience.
- Read books on the subject of self-representation. Amazon has many such books, including Nolo's helpful, "Represent Yourself in Court," and Gary Spence's, "Win Your Suit."
- Spend as much time as you can attending other superior court hearings to understand how things work. If you can attend hearings by your scheduled judge, all the better. Judicial styles vary considerably. Television shows are not dependable behavioral guides; most judges get cranky when a pro se plaintiff acts like a lawyer on television.
- Consider consulting with an attorney regarding procedures, strategies and deadlines. It's usually money well spent.
- When you get to court, don't try to act like an expert. The one strong point in your favor is that some judges will be mildly helpful if they see you've prepared well and are appropriately modest about your trial skills.
- Make your court presentations as brief as possible. Judges have tight schedules and are often severely overbooked. It doesn't hurt to tape rehearsal arguments to see how you can shorten them.
A few states offer mediation services as a cost-free alternative to small claims court. Nevada calls its program Neighborhood Justice Centers. If this interests you, ask your district small claims court for details.