Having the right to represent yourself in court dates back to the founding of the country. Pro se litigation, which is the term for self-representation in court, is on the rise. Pro se representation presents unique challenges for litigants and the legal system.
Mark Alexander, a trial lawyer with Stewart, Melvin & Frost, discusses the challenges of Pro Se and how it is being addressed in our court system. Mark’s firm – Stewart, Melvin & Frost – is one of Northeast Georgia’s largest and fastest law firms. It is widely respected as an “Uncommon Practice” – featuring an experienced team of attorneys recognized individually as experts in highly specialized areas of the law.
Question: Mark, are you seeing more people representing themselves in court now than in the previous years?
Mark: Yes. In the past with civil cases you would see individuals representing themselves in court who could not afford an attorney. Now, you see individuals representing themselves in court who are choosing not to hire an attorney because they don’t want to pay attorney fees for think they can handle the case themselves.
Question: What are some of the challenges that pro se litigation presents for our legal system and the individuals representing themselves?
Mark: Generally, pro se cases are more time-consuming for the court because a self-represented litigant may not understand the language and procedures of the court system. In many cases, the individual has not filed the appropriate paperwork or form to get their dispute heard by the court. It can slow the process because there are delays to get paperwork in order which decreases the efficiency of the court. A person has the right to represent themselves but they need to be prepared.
Question: What is being done to help people who want to represent themselves in court?
Mark: The State Bar of Georgia has been studying the rise of pro se litigiants and ways to help. There is discussions about setting up centers in each judicial circuit that would assist pro se litigants. The Hall County courts are progressive in this area. We have the Family Law Information Center that assists the pro se litigants with divorce and legitimation cases. It was established in the mid-2000s and has helped the court system tremendously.
Approximately half of all divorce cases in the county go through the Family Law Information Center. The center makes sure the individuals have the forms they need and the paperwork is in order so they can proceed. If their case is too complicated the center’s staff will recommend they seek legal help. There is a income limit for their services, so not everyone qualifies. Another possibility being discussed on the state level is having seminars for people who want to represent themselves in court to help them understand the process and be prepared.
Question: When you represent yourself in court, do you have to know the rules and procedures of the court or does the judge guide you?
Mark: While you have the right to represent yourself in a court of law, you are expected to follow the same rules and procedures that an attorney must follow. The judge cannot give any appearance of being partial to either side and this includes giving legal advice to pro se litigants.