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What should I know about representing myself in court?

Authored By: GeorgiaLegalAid.org
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Representing yourself in court Resources

Representing yourself in court

What should I know? +

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What is pro se?

When a person represents themself in a court case, they are called a: 

  • pro se litigant (the person who brings the case), or

  • pro se defendant (the person defending the case).

 

In Georgia, all criminal defendants are entitled to a lawyer, even if they cannot afford one on their own. In civil cases, however, there is no right to a lawyer. You may decide that you want to bring a civil lawsuit or defend yourself in a civil action on your own. You have the right to choose to represent yourself.

 

If you decide you want to represent yourself, know that you will be held to the same standards as an attorney. You should be prepared to learn the law and follow court procedures and rules.

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What should I consider when deciding if I need a lawyer?

Most experts will agree that you should not consider representing yourself in criminal matters. Some uncomplicated civil matters, though, might be easy to manage on your own. Before you decide to bring or defend a lawsuit on your own, you should consider:

  • The complexity of the issue. Some legal issues may be too complicated for a non-lawyer to tackle. For example, you might be able to handle your own divorce where you agree on all issues. But, you might not want to take on a divorce that involves arguments about property and custody of children. 

  • The stakes of the case. Many people choose to represent themselves in Magistrate Court (also known as small claims court). These cases involve potential damages under $15,000. You will have to weigh how much it might cost to hire a lawyer with what you stand to lose or gain.

  • The time commitment involved. Make sure you have the time to handle a court case on your own. 

    • You must file paperwork on time and appear in court for scheduled meetings and hearings. 

    • You will likely have to learn about the law and court procedures.

  • Whether you are eligible for free or low-cost legal help. If you are choosing to represent because you cannot afford a lawyer, you may be eligible for help. 

    • For help in Fulton, Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett, or DeKalb County, contact Atlanta Legal Aid. Fill out the Atlanta Legal Aid online intake application or call 404-524-5811 (main line), 404-657-9915 (GA Senior Legal Hotline), to see if you qualify for legal assistance.

    • If you live in any other Georgia county, contact the Georgia Legal Services Program for help. Access the GLSP online intake application or call 1-833-457-7529 to see if you qualify for legal assistance.

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What are my rights and responsibilities when I represent myself?

If you represent yourself, you have the right to:

  • Be treated equally to someone who has a lawyer. The court cannot treat you differently because you are representing yourself.

  • Accommodations for your disability. If you need an accommodation to participate in court, contact the court’s Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator before your court date.

  • Interpreter. If you need an interpreter, you have a right to have one appointed. 

 

You have responsibilities if you decide to represent yourself in court, including:

  • Following the rules of the court. The other side’s attorney, the judge and court employees are not allowed to give you legal advice. 

  • Understand the court procedures. If you do not follow procedures, your case could be dismissed.

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What can I do? +

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What if my case becomes too complicated to handle myself?

At any time during your case, you can hire an attorney to help you.

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Resources

  • Find forms and rules for many types of court cases on the Eighth Judicial District of Georgia website.

  • Read this handbook to learn more about being a pro se litigant in Federal Court (this links to a PDF that may not be fully accessible).

  • Watch this video tutorial about representing yourself in Magistrate Court from the Council of Magistrate Court Judges.

Last Review and Update: Dec 03, 2020