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Going it Alone in the Court

GOING IT ALONE IN COURTRepresenting oneself in court is called pro se (for himself) or pro per (for oneself) representation. Anyone considering this approach should be aware that self-representation requires patience and hard work. In almost all courts the judge will give a person acting pro se certain leeway with regard to the procedures and decorum of the tribunal. However, it is the very rare judge who will go out of their way or expend much more effort than absolutely necessary to help such a person with the particulars of their case.

The Court

The first step is determining in which court one should file their complaint (see “Filing a Complaint,” below). Different courts handle different matters. Federal courts handle only specific cases, including those involving federal issues or disputes between parties from different states.
State courts handle most cases. State courts typically have a general civil division as well as specific divisions to handle family law, small claims, criminal issues, and probate (wills, trusts, and estates).

Filing a Complaint

The first thing the plaintiff (the person suing) must do is to file a COMPLAINT, the document that describes the reason for the suit, including alleged facts and the law on which the suit is based. The complaint involves allegations only, so proof is not required in this document.
The complaint is filed with the clerk of the court. The clerk will be able to tell you how many copies are necessary, the amount of the filing fee, and any other requirements.

The Answer

The defendant (the person being sued) files an ANSWER within the time indicated by the summons. In the answer, the defendant answers each numbered allegation by admitting or denying each. If the defendant fails to deny an allegation, the court will deem the statement true. An answer need not be formally filed with the court; it is sufficient to return the answer to the plaintiff or his/her attorney.
The defendant also has the option of filing a MOTION challenging the plaintiff’s suit. Common motions include challenges to the court in which the complaint was filed or the manner in which the complaint and summons were served. Motions may be filed without first providing an answer to the plaintiff’s complaint.
Additionally, a defendant may file a COUNTERCLAIM within the answer, which is an allegation that the plaintiff was in fact at fault.
Amending a Complaint

If it is necessary to amend a complaint, a new document must be filed in the same manner the initial complaint. This should be titled “Amended Complaint” and incorporate the necessary changes. Courts have time limits for how long a party has to file an amended complaint; consult the clerk of the court.


Self-representation will require the party to remain vigilant about discovery, or the process of gathering all relevant information to assist in one’s case. Depending on whether one’s opponent is or is not represented by an attorney, the information received from the opponent may be well-organized and complete or haphazard and incomplete.


Attorneys are taught to be organized, since the cases they represent are their very livelihood. A non-attorney involved in a lawsuit who chooses to self-represent should be prepared for the fact that a lawsuit often involves great volumes of evidence, documents, and so on, and nothing should be considered unimportant. An organized system of storage will be extremely helpful in saving time and preserving emotional well-being.


Lawsuits can be expensive. Preparation costs money, courts charge filing fees, and involvement in a trial may require taking time off from income-producing work. It may seem desirable to save the money that would go to attorney fees by representing oneself, and in come cases the savings will indeed materialize.
However, note that an attorney is experienced in the processes and intricacies of lawsuits, and thus will be able to work efficiently. Attorneys are also in a position to know and to advise their clients how to cut costs. The savings, in terms of time, stress, and money, of hiring an attorney should be weighed seriously against the potential benefits of representing oneself to ensure that the savings are truly worthwhile.


There are numerous resources available to assist one in determining whether or not they can expect to successfully self-represent, or whether they should hire an attorney to represent them. Courts and state bar associations frequently provide self-representation tools such as checklists to determine whether, based on the complexity of one’s issue, self-representation is in the best interest of the party.
Many attorneys offer free initial consultations, or meetings in which one can present one’s case and seek information as to how the attorney would proceed with representation. Such consultations can be incredibly useful for a party to get a sense of how complex a lawsuit will be, how much time it will require, the expense involved in hiring an attorney, and, ultimately, whether or not to retain an attorney, or to go it alone.

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