While it is always ideal to have a lawyer to protect your legal rights and interests, this may not be possible all the time. If you have limited funds and do not qualify for legal aid, you may be forced to appear on behalf of yourself. Just because you appear pro se does not mean you will lose your case. However, it is necessary to be informed and educate yourself about the procedure and what to expect.
While court clerks cannot give you legal advice, they may be able to answer some basic questions. Here is a checklist of questions for pro se litigants from The Employee Rights Handbook:
- What are the procedures to file your papers with the court? How much does it cost to file an action? Can the filing fee be waived based on financial hardship? If so, what forms must be submitted?
- Are you in the proper court? If not, where should the lawsuit be brought?
- How many months or years will it take for the lawsuit to be heard at trial?
- Do you have proper subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction, and venue over the defendant(s)?
- What applicable federal or state laws, ordinances, regulations, recent case decisions, and rules of evidence govern the case? Where can you review such laws and cases? Where is the nearest law library open to the general public?
- Is the lawsuit timely or is it barred by the statute of limitations? How should you draft the summons and complaint? What is the most effective way to describe the facts and remedy sought? Are there form complaints available for your use? Where can you purchase computer software or preprinted legal forms for assistance?
- Are there agencies or pro bono lawyers you can call for free advice? If so, where? Do any law schools provide law students as mentors or coaches? If so, where can you find them? How can you obtain a legal aid lawyer?
- If you are seeking injunctive relief rather than money damages, what procedures must be followed?
- Have you named the proper defendants in the complaint?
- What are the procedures to serve your leadings on the defendant(s)? Do you need a sheriff or process server to do this? If so, what is the cost and how do you contact them?
- Should you ask for a jury trial? How do you go about doing this? How long do you have before losing your right to a jury trial?
- When will your case be assigned a docket number?
- What is the name of the judge presiding over your matter? Will he or she handle the case from start to finish?
- Is the judge assigned to your case fair? Does he or she assist pro se litigants in the presentation of their case? Does the judge communicate in short clear sentences, avoid legalese and keep questions simple?
- What important rules does the judge follow? What should you do if you cannot meet scheduling guidelines?
- What motions are available before trial, during trial and after trial? How do you prepare a motion? How do you deal with a defendant’s motion to dismiss a motion for a summary judgment? When is the return date for a motion? How do you properly oppose a motion? Will the judge hear oral argument, or will the motion be denied only upon submission of briefs and other papers?
- What is an order to show cause and how do you obtain one?
- How do you gather evidence via discovery? What is the correct form for written interrogatories, requests for admission, requests for production of documents and depositions? What should you do it an opponent doesn’t cooperate or attend a scheduled deposition? What do you do if an opponent makes abusive or oppressive discovery requests?
- Should you agree to mediation to resolve the matter voluntarily? If so, how does the process work?
- What is a good settlement based on the facts of your case? Should you attempt to settle the case? If so, how?
- How can you compel witnesses to testify via a subpoena who does not wish to appear?
- What are the rules governing jury selection, opening statements, direct and cross examination of witnesses and closing arguments?
- How long will it take to receive a judge’s or jury’s decision?
- If you obtain a default judgment, how do you enter it? How do you enforce a default judgment?
- How do you appeal an adverse decision? What are the chances of winning an appeal based on the facts of your case?
Additionally, if you are a pro se defendant, some questions you should ask yourself include:
- What steps can you take to dismiss the case early on?
- How do you draft and submit the answer, counterclaims and affirmative defenses?
- What is the best way to contest improper service?
- How do you vacate a default judgment?
When filing papers in court as a pro se litigant, sign your name in the same places a lawyer would sign. However, always be sure to include “attorney pro se.”