Can individuals adequately represent themselves in court?

Post by Randall Ryder

A recent report indicated that more and more individuals are representing themselves in court. In particular, the study indicated that individuals were representing themselves in many areas of consumer law. According to the judges were polled as part of the survey, 62% of them felt that proceeding pro se results in a worse outcome for litigants. In particular, some of the judges noted that in many cases that is due to failing to present the necessary evidence.

The survey is somewhat surprisingly, in the sense that I have seen countless articles and news reports dealing with people representing themselves and having success. At the same time, it is hard to discount an article based on a survey of judges, especially when the majority of judges feel that pro se litigants end up with a worse outcome.

There does seem to be a renewed emphasis, especially in the Twin Cities, on providing self-help centers, and free legal services to people who qualify. One problem, however, is that just because individuals are given the tools for self-representation, they do not always know how to use them. One attorney I know refers to lawyers as "tour guides for the legal process," which is semi-correct. Lawyers help guide people through the process, but they are also supposed to be effective advocates (something I have never seen a tour guide do).

Going back to tour guide analogy, even if the tour guide tells a tourist what they need to say in order to ask for something, the tour guide may not be able to tell them how to ask for it. Some pro se litigants have done hours and hours of research, and know the law when they go to court. Unfortunately, they do not know the best way to get their point across. 

Understandably, people can get frustrated that the legal process is so difficult to navigate for a person without a lawyer. Depending on the type of case, and the resources available, I do think many people are entirely capable of representing themselves and doing a good job. That is the good news. The bad news is that in many areas, the resources needed are not available, or they are not very good.

What do you think? Is the legal system impossible for people to navigate on their own?



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