Representing Yourself in Court
There are many situations in which you may be able to successfully represent yourself, but most experts agree that if you are facing a criminal charge that carries a jail sentence -- meaning the state is trying to deprive you of your liberty -- you should hire an attorney. In this one case, if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
If you will be suing someone in small claims court it makes more sense to represent yourself. Small Claims or Magistrate Court proceedings and generally less formal than state or superior court and were created with the intent to be accessible to people representing themselves. Small claims courts are available to resolve disputes for a dollar amount up to $15,000 in Georgia.
You can represent yourself in more formal court proceedings, but you should carefully weigh the risks and benefits before doing so. You need to compare the cost of hiring an attorney to the advantages of having someone experienced acting on your behalf. While hiring an attorney will cost money, it may be cheaper in the long run.
The following outline contains general tips on conduct and procedures. These suggestions may seem simplistic, but they are important to know before you go to court.
Know what evidence you need to prove your case. If possible, consult with an attorney before you come to court to obtain advice on how to present your case, what questions to ask, and other matters.
Bring documents and witnesses that will help prove your claim or defend against the claim.
- You need to bring at least three copies of each document you intend to use as evidence—one for you, one for the other party, and one for the judge.
- If a witness refuses to come to court to testify, you can have the court issue a subpoena (ordered to come to court) in advance of the trial. Make sure to ask the clerk's office for a subpoena well in advance of your hearing.
- Bring physical evidence. This includes a canceled check, contract, or invoice related to the case. Photographs are important as well. If you are seeking compensation for damage to an item, bring the item, or if this is not possible bring photographs of the damage. If possible, bring a photo of the object before it was damaged. It is also a good idea to bring in defective parts, if they are related to the case.
Be On Time
If you are not in court when your case is called, and the other party is present, you might have a default judgment entered against you. If neither party is present on time, your case might be passed over and you might have to wait until the very end of the court session before your case is called again. You might even have to come back on another day, even possibly a few weeks later.
Know and Follow Court Rules
Judges cannot make exceptions for litigants without attorneys. You could lose your case if you do not follow the correct procedures. Know the rules!
Be Courteous and Respectful
Make a good impression on the judge (and jury, if there is one). The best way to represent yourself in court is to be courteous and respectful to everyone. A judge can hold a person "in contempt of court" for unruly behavior. (This could result in a fine or time in jail.) Turn your cell phone off!!!
Wait for your turn to speak. Do not interrupt the judge or the other party. The judge wants to hear from each party, and each person wants and needs an opportunity to speak without interruption. If you interrupt others in court, the judge will stop you and instruct you to wait your turn.
Courts are places that emphasize tradition, civility, and good manners. You should wear an appropriate suit or sport coat, if you have one. Otherwise, wear nice, clean casual clothes and shoes.
Remove your hat or cap while you are in the courtroom or chambers.
Speak Loudly and Clearly
Many people are nervous when they are in court and they tend to speak softly. Judges and other litigants need to hear the facts correctly. The other party needs to hear you correctly so she or he can respond appropriately and accurately to your statements. The judge needs to hear you clearly so that he or she can make a correct decision.
If You Cannot Attend a Hearing
If an emergency prevents you from attending a hearing or being in court on time (e.g., you're ill or you have last minute car problems), you should call the clerk of court office or the judge's court attendant, calmly explain your problem, and ask for a continuance. Court staff will write down the request and contact the judge. The judge will decide whether the scheduling request will be granted.
If you need to reschedule for other reasons, you must submit your request for a continuance in writing and file it with the clerk of court. Do this well in advance of the hearing so that you don't cause problems for others. Also, it's more likely a judge will grant your request if you have the other party's agreement in writing. The clerk will refer your request to a judge. Because judges are quite busy, you probably won't get an answer right away.
No Legal Advice from Judges and Court Staff
State laws and ethical rules prohibit judges and employees from giving legal advice. This means that judges and staff cannot advise people on whether to bring problems to the court, what remedies they should seek, and the proper course of action. The purpose of this restriction is to protect litigants and the public by ensuring that:
- Judges and court employees do not use their position to give an individual an unfair advantage in court.
- Litigants do not rely on information that may prove incorrect or inconsistent with court rules or law and that is detrimental to their case.
Court staff may explain basic procedures and answer questions about deadlines.
If you wish to represent yourself in State or Superior Court, please take into consideration the following:
- The office of the Clerk of Court may not distribute forms for you to use, nor can they suggest which forms are necessary for your case. However, you may research closed cases and make copies to use as examples in filling out paperwork.
- Employees also cannot offer legal advice, including advice as to whether all paperwork has been completed properly or not. They are only allowed to accept your paperwork for filing and charge the appropriate filing fee.
- If the paperwork is not completed properly, you may be required to redo it, resulting in the case being rescheduled for the next term of court, or it may be thrown out of court. The Clerk of Court, therefore, encourages anybody wishing to act as his/her own lawyer to consult with an attorney before submitting any paperwork.
Be Careful About Talking to the Judge
Judicial ethics prohibit judges from considering an "ex parte" communication—an exchange of information, orally or in writing, between the court and an attorney or party without the opposing attorney or party present.
If you want to give the judge information pertinent to a case or you want the judge to take some action related to a case, you must:
- Put the request in writing
- File it in the clerk's office
- Provide copies to the other parties in the case