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Definition of Pro Se in Legal Cases

Updated on September 24, 2014
If you are able to research the law and are willing to seek assistance from free resources, it is possible to handle your case pro se successfully.
If you are able to research the law and are willing to seek assistance from free resources, it is possible to handle your case pro se successfully.

What is Pro Se Representation?

Pro se representation means that an individual party to a case is serving as his own attorney. Parties representing themselves in court may file documents and make oral arguments in the same manner as lawyer. Pro se parties are expected to comply with the same rules, deadlines and procedures as a licensed attorney.

Pro se parties are most common in simple issues, such as small claims cases, uncontested divorces, or misdemeanor criminal matters that do not carry the possibility of a jail sentence.

Governing Rules

Federal laws explicitly address a litigant's right to self-representation. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Federal Rules of Evidence, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and U.S. Judiciary Act all contain provisions for persons appearing pro se. The U.S. Supreme Court has also upheld the right to self-representation numerous times. In other words, in most instances, the court cannot bar you from representing yourself. However, the judge may choose to interview you prior to approving your decision to forego legal counsel to ensure that you understand the implications of your choice. Judges may choose to appoint counsel against the individual's will for young adults whose parents do not want to seek legal representation for them or persons whose physical or mental capacity limits their ability to represent themselves in a way that would ensure they receive a fair day in court.

Hiring an attorney can help you navigate complex legal issues and ensure that you do not overlook any important aspects of your case.
Hiring an attorney can help you navigate complex legal issues and ensure that you do not overlook any important aspects of your case. | Source

Limitations of Appearing Pro Se

Most persons are permitted to represent themselves in court in personal matters, including divorce, child custody, bankruptcy, and criminal matters. Likewise, most sole proprietors of businesses are permitted to appear pro se for their company. Most corporations and partnerships, however, may not be represented by a pro se. In other words, if you own a company and have a business partner or need to file bankruptcy on behalf of your business, you may not be permitted to represent your company. In some probate matters, estate executors are also required to hire a lawyer. In these cases, the courts may make exceptions for pro se parties who are licensed attorneys.

If you choose to represent yourself, understanding your legal issue and the laws that govern your case are of utmost importance. Because ignorance of the law is never a defense, if you misunderstand a legal issue, you may have no recourse if your case does not have a favorable outcome. Thus, it is important to weigh the benefits of pro se representation carefully.

Reasons for Self Representation

Litigants may choose to appear pro se for a number of reasons, although most choose to do so to avoid attorney fees. In many cases, parties appear pro se because do not qualify for free legal service through the public defender's office or legal aid yet still cannot afford a private lawyer.

Practicing lawyers, law students and other legal professionals such as paralegals or consults sometimes choose to forgo counsel because they have a professional knowledge of the law and believe they can handle their cases without legal assistance. In other instances, such as uncontested divorces, litigants may choose to represent themselves because their cases are straightforward and will not avoid extensive litigation or in-depth understanding of state and federal law.

Other individuals simply choose to represent themselves because they do not want an attorney. This may be based on negative perceptions of lawyers or past experiences with the legal system. Indeed, the Pro Se Legal Center found that vast majority of people who represent themselves are happier with the legal process and would choose to forego formal legal representation if they had to proceed with their case again.


Pro se litigants who are also practicing attorneys or legal professionals may not request reimbursement of their fees from the opposing party, even if the law would otherwise allow them to collect the cost of their legal representation. Persons representing themselves will be responsible for all filing fees and other out-of-pocket costs associated with their case. As a pro se party, you may incur the following expenses:

  • Court filing fees (these may exceed $200)
  • Copy fees (law books, statutes, model petition forms)
  • Travel expenses (court, law libraries)
  • Incidental losses (time off work doing research and preparing your case, as courts are typically only open regular business hours)
  • Process servers/registered mail to send documents to the court and other party to the case

Whether the time and resources necessary to represent yourself in court outweighs the cost of hiring an attorney depends on the nature of your case. In many family law matters--such as divorces in persons without children or significant assets--the costs of appearing pro se are much lower than hiring an attorney. On the other hand, if your are filing a civil lawsuit for personal injury, wrongful termination, or another complex issue that will likely involve a trial, this will require extensive preparation and hours to dedicate to the case weekly. Around the time of the trial, preparing may--literally--be a full-time job In such cases, persons who work may lose more in wages than they would save by representing themselves.

Help For Pro Se Parties

Most courts offer assistance to pro se litigants through the public defender's office or legal aid division. The court clerk's office also keeps sample petitions, motions and other common legal forms on file for pro se parties use when preparing their cases. Although some of these agencies cannot provide you with formal legal advice, they can assist you with your research and your court's specific procedures.

Additionally, the American Bar Association also monitors the amount of litigants appearing pro se, as well as challenges to the right to self-representation, and offers analysis and suggestions for judges and lawyers working with pro se parties to ensure that they are treated fairly. In other words, behind the scenes, those in positions of power are given training in working with non-lawyers representing themselves in court. This often makes pro se representation more viable and fair to the average citizen with no specialized training in law.

Learn More: How to Represent Yourself in Court

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