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What Is a Pro Se Defendant?

A judge may deny a defendant the opportunity to proceed pro se if he determines that the defendant cannot.
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  • Written By: Daphne Mallory
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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A pro se defendant is one who represents himself in a criminal or civil lawsuit. The individual files all the legal documents and proceeds without any help from an attorney in court. That’s not to say that the defendant cannot rely on the assistance of a lawyer outside of court who may act as a coach during the proceedings. Legal systems often permit defendants to represent themselves as long as they can show that they are mentally competent and physically able to do so. A judge may deny a defendant the opportunity to proceed pro se if he or she determines that the defendant cannot.

In a civil case, a defendant has only two options: proceed pro se or hire an attorney. There’s a third option in some legal systems. The court system may provide a public defender, a lawyer who is paid by the taxpayers to represent low-income individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney. A judge may also appoint a public defense lawyer in cases where the defendant is found to be incapable of representing himself and he refuses to hire his own attorney. Some defendants still often choose to represent themselves in a criminal case, knowing the risks of imprisonment and other penalties, and they have a legislative right to do so in most cases.

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A pro se defendant in a civil case is often held to the same standard as attorneys when it comes to court decorum and sanction rules. For example, if the defendant does not file pro se forms in a manner consistent with the requirements of the court and in accordance with the applicable laws, then the judge may sanction the defendant. A pro se defendant is not exempt from sanctions just because she is representing herself. If a defendant wins a case, the plaintiff or attorney may be required to pay him court costs and legal expenses. He or she often cannot collect reasonable attorney fees.

There are alternatives to going to court that a pro se defendant can take advantage of or may be required to pursue. Mediation is one method of conflict resolution where a third and unbiased party facilitates a resolution between the plaintiff and the defendant. A judge may order a case to go to mediation first before proceeding with a trial. Contractual terms may also require a pro se defendant to go to arbitration before or in lieu of filing a lawsuit. In arbitration, the rules are often more relaxed than court rules, and the defendant has to present her case before a panel of lawyers or retired judges.

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