In law, pro se is a term applied to a situation in which an individual handles his or her own legal case, without the assistance of an attorney. Individuals may choose to proceed pro se for a variety of reasons. For some, the choice may be financial. Many lawyers charge by the hour, and some individuals are unable to afford their high fees. By proceeding pro se, they can have their cases heard without the need to struggle with attorney fees.
In some cases, individuals may be able to obtain the services of a lawyer, even if they cannot afford one. This is typically the case when criminal charges are involved. When serious crimes are prosecuted, indigent defendants in such cases have the right to have lawyers appointed to them. However, defendants in such situations may have to proceed pro se for appeals and certain post-conviction proceedings, as representation is often provided for initial trials only.
In civil cases, lawyers are not appointed for those who cannot afford them. Civil litigants do not have the automatic right to proceed pro se. However, most courts do allow litigants to represent themselves. Corporations and other organized entities may be treated differently. Some courts will not allow such entities to proceed without legal representation.
Some individuals choose to proceed pro se in court because they have the legal expertise necessary to do so. For example, a lawyer or advanced law student may decide to represent himself in court. However, for very complicated cases, hiring another lawyer may be advantageous, even for those with legal expertise.
Interestingly, many small claims courts operate on an entirely different premise than most other courts. In many jurisdictions, small claims court litigants are not permitted to have lawyers represent them. In other jurisdictions, where lawyers are allowed in small claims court, the court proceedings may be less difficult to navigate and more suited to those who do want to proceed pro se.
For those lacking significant legal education, court proceedings may be fraught with pitfalls. They may miss opportunities or make mistakes simply because they lack experience and knowledge of all that is required. On the other hand, some judges may give pro se litigants more leeway during legal proceedings, allowing them to compensate for their lack of experience.
It is also possible to represent yourself in court with advice from a lawyer, without having the lawyer appear in court on your behalf. In such a case, a pro se litigant may accept legal advice and help from a lawyer, yet submit paperwork and appear before the judge pro se. A paralegal may also be useful for preparing court documents and providing information on general court procedures.