In Propria Persona

The legal term in propria persona is a Latin phrase that translates to mean “in his or her own person.” For example, in propria persona, in the field of law, means that a person is representing himself in a lawsuit, and is therefore giving the court jurisdiction over his case. The term is typically abbreviated to “in pro per,” and this is typed in the space where “attorney for plaintiff” would normally be typed on court documents. To explore this concept, consider the following in propria persona definition.

Definition of In Propria Persona

Pronounced

In  proh-pree-uh  per-soh-nuh

Adverb

  1. Represented by oneself, rather than by an attorney.

Origin

1645-1655       Latin  (“in one’s own person”)

What is In Propria Persona

When someone is challenging the personal jurisdiction of the courts, he is appearing “in his own person,” or in propria persona. A person must be careful not to either commit an act, or omit to act, in a way that would give the courts personal jurisdiction. Once he does, or does not do, either of these, he gives the court permission to proceed at the court’s own discretion. Any arguments against the court’s jurisdiction would therefore be deemed frivolous, and the court would continue to proceed full steam ahead with its course of action.

The Cyclopedia of Law explains the concept thusly:

“A plea to the jurisdiction asserts that the court before which the cause is brought is not the proper court to take cognizance of the matter.”

What this means is if a court is not the right court to hear a particular matter, then that court does not have the jurisdiction to hear the matter. However, someone appearing in propria persona may give the wrong court the ability to hear the case and proceed accordingly. He then forgoes any possibility of arguing against the court’s decision, whatever it may be, because he gave the wrong court the jurisdiction to preside over his case.

In Propria Persona vs. Pro Se

While in propria persona may seem interchangeable with the term “pro se,” the two are actually very different. Someone proceeding pro se represents himself as his own attorney in the lawsuit. This means that he is expected to act like an attorney and follow all of the same rules that would apply to an attorney that the person would have, in the alternative, hired to represent him.

In propria persona, however, is very different. For example, in propria persona means that someone is appearing as himself, not just for himself. In other words, rather than representing himself as an officer of the court as he would if he appeared pro se, someone appearing in propria persona is giving the court the jurisdiction to represent him, in a way, and rule on his case free from persuasion by any officers of the court. Those who appear pro se, on the other hand, are subjected to the same rules that lawyers are expected to follow.

It is not recommended that someone appear in propria persona. The old adage “an attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client and an ass for an attorney” has even been quoted, in part, by the Supreme Court when handling a case wherein a party appeared in propria persona. The Court defended the adage as a statement born from “years of experience by seasoned litigators.” In other words, attorneys who have been practicing for a long time know better than to appear in propria persona and would probably advise another against doing so.

Problems of Self Representation In Pro Per

While many people are taking on the task of representing themselves in court cases, experts claim there are a number of reasons that this is not a good idea. Acting as an in pro per litigant is overwhelming for most people, as the reality of strict legal and procedural proceedings, correct legal documents, and timelines can frustrate the case, or even result in its dismissal.

In addition to preparing legal documents, and adhering to the rules of court, representing oneself in the courtroom is intimidating and frightening for most people.

Tips for In Propria Persona Representation

For those intent on representing themselves in court, there are certain things to know, in order to help things go smoothly. These include:

  • Don’t rely heavily on case law. It is common for non-lawyers to rely heavily on some caselaw that seems on the surface to apply directly to their case. Unfortunately, the use of caselaw is rarely a straightforward thing. It is important to understand the law, as well as the caselaw, before heading to court.
  • Specific wording, intent, and fairness. While the specific wording of a contract, statute, law, or caselaw is important in many cases, the court also takes into account the parties’ intent, and the concept of fairness, in deciding cases.
  • Bring the Evidence. While what certain people heard or saw, or what they agreed to verbally, is important, it is often difficult to prove. Getting all contracts and agreements in writing, for presentation at court, enables a party to more easily build his case. In addition to bringing any hard evidence in his possession, the party should use the time before trial to gather information and evidence possessed by the other party. This process – of requesting information and documentation – is called “discovery.”
  • Negotiations. Legal matters are quite often settled between the parties outside the courtroom. In fact, such settlements are encouraged by the court, as this often results in a more desirable outcome, while freeing up the court’s resources. Using a professional mediator can make this process easier.
  • Dealing with the Court Clerk. The court clerk takes in all of the legal documents, filing them with the court, and providing the parties with certified copies. Court clerks cannot, by law, give legal advice, but they can help you understand the process for filing and serving your documents, as well as the deadlines. Being polite and gracious in all of your interactions with the court clerk is sure to make life easier.
  • Observe court proceedings. Most court proceedings – with the exception of those that take place in family court – are open to the public. By sitting in on similar cases beforehand, a party to the litigation may gain insight into how the trial will take place, and the process that will occur.

In Propria Persona Example in a Criminal Case

An example of in propria persona coming up in a court of law can be found in the following case. William Randolph Maddox, Jr. was scheduled to be tried in November of 1965 before the Los Angeles Superior Court on charges of robbery and kidnapping. Police officer Sanders was to escort him from his holding cell to the courtroom, but as the men were proceeding up the stairs, they engaged in a brief fistfight.

Maddox was charged with attempted escape, as well as battery on Sanders. Maddox was not represented by an attorney, and a public defender was appointed to represent him. At his arraignment, Maddox moved to represent himself in propria persona, but the judge denied his request. Maddox entered a plea of not guilty, and the case was set for trial.

Before the trial, however, Maddox filed a petition to compel the court to recognize his right to represent himself, which was again denied by the trial court. The following week, the public defender moved to be relieved as Maddox’s counsel, so that Maddox could appear in propria persona, which was denied. Maddox’s petition for the right to represent himself was then transferred from the Superior Court of California to the Court of Appeal, where the petition was denied without issuance of an opinion.

When the case was called for trial, the public defender once again submitted his motion to be relieved so that Maddox could proceed in propria persona. Maddox explained that the lawyer had not subpoenaed several witnesses that Maddox wanted to call to testify in his case. The judge asked what the testimony of these witnesses would consist of, but Maddox was hesitant to elaborate in the presence of the district attorney and prospective jurors.

The court finally acknowledged that, if Maddox insisted on representing himself at trial, then it couldn’t stop him. The court cautioned Maddox that he would receive no greater consideration because of his decision, and ordered the public defender to be relieved from further representation. Immediately thereafter, the court ordered the jury be impaneled.

Maddox argued that he was not yet ready to proceed, having just been elected to represent himself in the case. He requested a 60-day adjournment, which was denied. He then moved to have the judge disqualified, which was also denied. Maddox insisted he was not prepared to represent himself, and that he had no witnesses lined up to support his case. The court replied that Maddox had plenty of opportunities to get his case together and that the court was ready to proceed.

As the jury was being selected, Maddox again requested that the court halt the proceedings, dismiss the jury, and allow him more time to gather witnesses so that he could properly prepare his defense. The court took down the names and addresses of several witnesses but did not grant Maddox a continuance.

Testimony began that afternoon, and the case was continued to the next day, whereupon Maddox was able to put only one useful witness on the stand – his former co-defendant, Larry West. West was easy to find because he was imprisoned in the same building as the courtroom.

Most of Maddox’s other witnesses could not be found by process servers in time for the remainder of the proceedings that day. Maddox requested from the court a list of the names of the deputy sheriffs that could testify as to Officer Sanders’ alleged hostility toward Maddox, which was denied. Also denied was Maddox’s request for a transcript of the previous day’s testimony for impeachment purposes.

Maddox moved to dismiss the case based on everything that he had been denied, and the court denied that, too. Maddox was ultimately convicted and, of course, appealed the conviction. The Supreme Court of California noted that, while the trial court ultimately granted Maddox the right to represent himself, it did so at the last minute on the day of trial. The question therefore became whether or not Maddox was entitled to a reasonable continuance so as to prepare himself for trial.

The Court ruled that, while it did not “condone the device of claiming the right to appear in propria persona for the purpose merely of delaying the trial,” that was not what happened here. The Court reversed the trial court’s decision, noting that:

“We do not demand prescience of trial courts faced with decisions involving the right of representation by counsel – but we must require of them a resourceful diligence directed toward the protection of that right to the fullest extent consistent with effective judicial administration.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Case Law – Law established by previous court rulings, rather than by legislation.
  • Continuance – An adjournment or postponement.
  • Discovery – The pre-trial efforts of each party to obtain information and evidence.
  • Impanel – Enroll someone in a jury.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.

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