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In Latin, pro se means for oneself. A pro se plaintiff is one who commences a civil legal matter and represents himself or herself in court without an attorney. Upon filing of a pro se complaint, a judge may ask whether the plaintiff would like legal representation and even imply that it would be in the plaintiff’s best interest to do so. Local laws don’t often prohibit self representation in court, though, and a plaintiff has a right to pursue a case alone. A pro se plaintiff may opt to hire a lawyer as a consultant behind the scenes for guidance and to answer tough legal questions as the case progresses.
A judge will often not allow a plaintiff to proceed in a lawsuit pro se without meeting certain requirements. It’s important to establish that a plaintiff is mentally capable of legally representing herself. Mental capability often has nothing to do with intelligence, but instead the ability to understand the proceedings and to be in the right frame of mind. If a plaintiff cannot prove that, she or he will be asked to proceed only with the help of an attorney. Physical capability is often a secondary requirement for a pro se plaintiff, which means that the plaintiff is not impaired in such a way that he or she cannot appear in court or effectively represent himself or herself while there.
Pro se plaintiffs may have to pay sanctions in court as well as attorney fees. A sanction is a fine that a judge may impose for violation of court rules or etiquette, such as improper filings or failure to file legal documents. A plaintiff who loses the case may also be required to pay the defendant’s legal fees. The costs must often be directly related to court costs and services, as well as reasonable attorney fees. Many courts have ruled that a pro se plaintiff cannot collect attorney fees after winning a case, even if the plaintiff is a licensed attorney.
In many cases, judges are tolerant of pro se litigants, especially when the defendant is represented by counsel. One of the top reasons that plaintiffs choose to represent themselves is for economic reasons. Attorney fees are too cost prohibitive, and so the only option is to act on their own behalf. Judges are only tolerant to a certain extent, though, and often hold pro se plaintiffs to the same standard as a licensed attorney appearing in court. When plaintiffs do not hold themselves to these standards, judges may apply sanctions.