The average citizen's ability to gain access to the American justice system is significantly determined by economic status. The wealthy can afford experienced lawyers - the legal's system's gatekeepers - while many others are frozen out. Fortunately, there are some alternatives to all-out legal war, which can help to level the legal playing field. Mediation, expanded small claims courts, and family courts that make non-lawyers welcome are all part of the changing landscape. So, too, are public and private website, many of which provide legal information as well as low-cost forms and the instructions necessary to complete routine legal tasks. Together these changes give hope that all Americans will have improved access to our legal system in the years ahead.
Representing Yourself in Court
Before deciding to represent yourself, you may want to explore the possibility of getting free legal assistance. There are several instances in which you may be able to get an attorney to represent you for free.
1) If you face criminal charges.
If you've been charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire your own lawyer, you have a constitutional right to an attorney at government expense.
2) If you've been injured.
If you have been significantly injured and it appears that someone else is at least partially at fault, many lawyers will agree to represent you on a "contingency fee" basis. This means that you pay attorneys' fees only when and if the attorney recovers money for you, in which case the attorney takes an agreed-upon percentage of that total as fees.
3) If you qualify for legal aid
If you can't afford an attorney, you may qualify for free legal assistance. Legal aid lawyers are government funded lawyers who represent people with low incomes in a variety of legal situations, including eviction defense, denial of unemployment compensation or other benefits, and consumer credit problems.
4) If you claim involves an issue of social justice
If your dispute involves a civil rights or social justice issue, an attorney or non-profit organization with an interesttt in that issue may represent you on a free or "pro bono" basis.
5) If you claim involves a divorce, child custody or support, domestic violence, or other family law problem.
Increasingly, family courts are providing plain English information and simplified forms to self represented litigants. Many have established comprehensive family law centers right at the court house, where trained staff help non-lawyers successfully achieve their goals.
Is it truly sensible to appear in court without a lawyer?
When it comes to small claims court, which is designed to be accessible to nonlawyers, the answer is yes. But sometimes it also makes sense to represent yourself in a more formal court proceeding.
If I decide to represent myself, how can I handle the technical rules and complex language?
Essentially, you have two choices. Get the dispute diverted to mediation, where things are done in plain English and procedural rules are kept to a minimum, or take the time to learn to navigate a formal court proceeding.
How can I decide whether to sue someone?
You need to answer three fundamental questions in order to decide whether it's worthwhile to go forward:
Do I have a good legal case?
Can I prove my case?
Can I collect when I win?
How hard is it to collect a court judgement?
That depends on your opponent. Most reputable businesses and individuals will pay what they owe.
How can I tell whether I have a good case?
Lawyers break each type of legal claim into a short list of required elements; the facts you'll have to prove in order to win. As long as you know what the elements are for your type of lawsuit, it's usually fairly easy to determine whether your case is legally sound.
Is it difficult to prepare the paperwork to file a lawsuit?
Actually, it's often fairly easy and inexpensive - especially if you learned how to do basic legal research and prepare drafts of the papers. restricting your lawyer's role to that of checking your work. Initiating a lawsuit is straight forward in many states, where court clerks provide preprinted fill-in-the-blanks forms for many types of lawsuits. And many state and local courts make free forms available on their own website.
I've filed my lawsuit. What do I need to do next?
Before your case is scheduled for trial, you'll need to do a number of things, including meeting with your opponent and filing and responding to paperwork designed to reduce or narrow the issues to be tried. Court rules cover many of these tasks - for example, whether and when a settlement conference must take place, when papers are filed, and how to place a case on the court's trial calendar. You can get these rules from the court clerk and often on the web as well.
The Morales Law Firm would like to thank NOLO's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law for sharing this information with us.