how to represent yourself in court

How to Represent Yourself in Court: The Ultimate Guide

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The thought of appearing in court can be nerve wracking for some people. It’s even more stressful when you think about how much money it can be for a lawyer to represent you well in court.

For that reason, more and more people are learning how to defend themselves in court, especially when it comes to small claims that aren’t high stakes. If you’ve never even set foot in a courtroom, though, this can be pretty daunting.

It doesn’t have to be. If you have the time to work at it, you can learn how to represent yourself in court.

Read on for this handy guide about representing yourself in court.

Why Should You Learn How To Represent Yourself In Court?

So why might people choose to represent themselves in court instead of hiring a lawyer?

The number one reason is that they can’t afford legal services. Lawyers are perceived as pretty expensive, though you should always take the time to learn more about affordable and reputable law firms before you decide you can’t afford one.

If you truly can’t afford legal representation, then it would be a good idea to learn how to represent yourself in court.

What Are The Risks?

Before you try to represent yourself, you should know that there are lots of risks. Of course, the biggest risk is that you’ll lose your case.

This risk is increased if the other person involved in the lawsuit has a lawyer and you don’t. If you lose, you could end up paying the other person’s legal fees on top of the money you’re ordered to pay by the judge.

If you misunderstand aspects of the case, you could also end up agreeing to terms you didn’t realize were in a document or accidentally saying something that hurts your argument.

Next, we’ll go over how to represent yourself in both civil and criminal court.

Civil Court

People usually land in civil court when one person sues someone else who they think has caused them harm in some way. If you’re headed to court for something like a personal injury case, divorce proceedings, or a breach of contract case, you’re going to civil court. Here’s what you need to know.

Answer The Original Complaint

The moment you receive a copy of a complaint filed against you, the clock starts ticking.

The first thing you’re going to have to do is file an answer to the complaint. This has to be filed within thirty days of your receipt of the complaint.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore this completely. If you don’t file an answer in time, even if you want to defend yourself, the judge could rule in favor of the plaintiff by default.

Your answer should be as clear as possible and detail your responses to each one of the plaintiff’s claims.

Consider Cross-Complaints

Do you have a legitimate grievance against the person suing you? Now is the time to say so. You should file cross-complaints at the same time as you file your original answer. Otherwise, you’ll waive your ability to do so completely.

You can only do this if it’s related to the original claim against you. If the person is suing you for damages from a car accident, you can’t file a cross-complaint for that time they “borrowed” $200 from you and never repaid you.

Research Applicable Laws

After you’ve answered the complaint and potentially filed a cross-complaint, your next job is to do as much research as possible.

It’s very important to know how the law applies to your case so that you can base your argument in fact. You should also strategize how you’re going to respond to the claims that have been made against you. If you don’t know the laws, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

If there’s a law school near you, see if you can gain access to its library.

Appear In Court

Even before your trial date, you’ll probably have to appear in court at least once. You need to make sure that you attend all of these court appearances. That’s where you discuss how the trial will go, what aspects of the claim will or won’t be argued, and the possibility of settling.

Try To Settle

Speaking of settling, you should definitely try to settle out of court if you can. This could end up saving you lots of money since you won’t have to pay court fees or legal fees. You’ll also have more control over the outcome — it won’t be up to a judge or jury.

In some states, there might be mandatory conferences where you and the plaintiff have to try to settle. Even if it’s not required in your state, this is a smart path to take before the case goes to trial.

Go To Trial

If you’re not able to settle, then you’ll be headed to court for a trial. Before you go, make sure you prepare your evidence and know the rules for how it can be used in court.

You’ll need to prepare an opening statement and be ready to cross-examine witnesses if any have been brought to court. You’ll also be required to present your own defense and deliver a closing statement.

This is also where knowing the relevant law comes back into play. If the other party seems to break court rules, you can object if you have a legal basis for the objection.

Criminal Court

If at all possible, you should avoid trying to represent yourself in criminal court. The stakes here are way higher since you could end up doing time in jail or prison if you lose. That’s much worse than being forced to pay a large sum of money.

If your case comes with a potential sentence of six months in jail or more, there’s good news for you — under the Sixth Amendment, you’re entitled to an attorney. If you really can’t afford legal representation, you can work with a lawyer from the public defender’s office. They will defend you for free.

Read More Educational Posts

Now that you’ve learned how to represent yourself in court with this guide, you’re better prepared to step into the courtroom.

Want to keep learning about additional useful topics? Read our blog for more. Check out the other educational posts we have on upgifs.

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