When an individual acts on his own behalf during a legal action, rather than through an attorney, he is considered to be a pro se litigant. This Latin term literally means “advocating on one’s own behalf.” In all jurisdictions in the United States, an individual is allowed to represent himself, whether as the plaintiff or defendant in a civil lawsuit, or as the defendant in a criminal case. To explore this concept, consider the following pro se definition.
Definition of Pro Se
- To represent oneself in a legal proceeding.
First known use in law 1861 Latin: on one’s own behalf
Pro se Representation
Pro se representation refers to a situation in which a person decides not to be represented by an attorney in a civil or criminal court case. The right of an individual to choose pro se representation dates back to pre-Constitutional times in the U.S. Although individuals have the right to represent themselves during legal actions, there are certain requirements. For example, the individual must have the mental capacity necessary to represent himself, which may be determined by the court, if questioned. Additionally, an individual choosing pro se representation must observe all of the rules of the legal action and the courtroom, just as an attorney would be expected to do.
Pro Se Litigant
A pro se litigant is an individual who is representing himself in a civil court action. While the law allows nearly anyone to be a pro se litigant, and to appear in court on their own behalf, there are some limitations. For example, a pro se litigant, or self-represented litigant, cannot represent others. This places certain limitations on pro se representation, such as:
- A corporation or a partnership cannot be represented by a pro se litigant
- A pro se litigant cannot represent a class in a class action suit, or a person bringing a class action suit
- A parent cannot act as a pro se litigant on behalf of a child
- The executor of a probate estate cannot act pro se unless he is an attorney
Pro Se Divorce
When going through divorce, it is not required for either party to be represented by an attorney, and in fact, many choose to save money by representing themselves in a pro se divorce. The necessary forms for divorce are available at the local family court, and many jurisdictions offer family law family law facilitators to provide information on the process of divorce to pro se litigants. In a divorce in which both parties can agree on the issues of division of marital property, and child custody and support, a pro se divorce may be the best choice for all. On the other hand, when there is serious conflict over these issues, the divorce may become quite complicated, and hiring an attorney may be the better choice.
During divorce proceedings, self-represented parties must adhere to the same rules and procedures as attorneys. This includes filing the necessary paperwork within the time limits specified in the rules of civil procedure, and being aware of what each hearing entails. For some people, the process in a pro se divorce can be more difficult if the other party is represented by an attorney.
Famous Cases Involving Pro Se Litigants
Ted Bundy, a man convicted of murdering 3 women, and suspected of murdering 30 more, chose to represent himself on and off during two separate murder trials in Florida. Bundy appeared pro se at several hearings at the beginning of his 1979 murder trial, which was the first nationally televised trial in U.S. history. Many people believed Bundy’s insistence on taking the reins of his defense as a pro se litigant on many occasions to be hubris, as he believed he was more intelligent than investigators, prosecutors, and even defense attorneys on the case.
Clarence Earl Gideon
Clarence Earl Gideon, a man who could not afford to hire an attorney to represent him, appeared in a Florida court in 1961, after being accused of felony breaking and entering, requesting that the court appoint counsel to represent him. The state court denied his request, stating that Florida state law allowed the appointment of counsel only if the defendant has been accused of a capital offense. Gideon, who was forced to act pro se was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
From the prison library, Gideon appealed to the United States Supreme Court, stating that, because he was denied counsel, his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. In its 1963 ruling, the Supreme Court held that representation by counsel, even by defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney, is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. The opinion further stated that, because the Sixth Amendment does not distinguish between capital and non-capital offenses, the services of an attorney must be provided for an impoverished defendant in all criminal cases.
Because the state of Florida had denied Gideon counsel, a new trial was ordered. With the representation of a public defender in this second trial, Gideon was acquitted.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Public Defender – An attorney appointed by the court to represent a defendant who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In large jurisdictions, the office of the Public Defender employs multiple defense attorneys who have a large caseload. In smaller jurisdictions, attorneys for public defense may be appointed from a pool of local private attorneys.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.