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Pro-Se Definition

Individual filling out paper for court when they are representing themselves pro se.
Individual filling out paper for court when they are representing themselves “pro se”.


You may have found yourself in a situation where you were short on legal options. Either you don’t have the money to hire an attorney  or simply couldn’t find someone willing to take your case. So, in this article, we are going to talk about the definition of Pro- se. 


While there are some alternative methods for filing things in the courts, the ultimate question is, should you represent yourself in court?  Let’s first consider the definition of pro se in greater detail below.


What is pro-se (pro-say)?


Pro- se is a Latin term that denotes the representation of “one’s self” in the courts. In the United States, individuals in criminal cases have the right to represent yourself, hire an attorney or an attorney may be appointed for you if you cannot afford one. In civil cases, you may be required to hire an attorney. If you can not hire an attorney you must represent yourself “pro se”. 


Are the Courts Against Pro Se Litigants?


The courts often see this litigation as a burden that clogs up the courts and waste of their time. Most rules of the courts are designed for conservation of time and judicial expediency because the United States is exploding with litigation.


Only an attorney can hold himself out as an expert in law and put his reputation at stake. An attorney can even lose their license to practice law for misconduct, so the courts hold attorneys in higher esteem than pro se litigants in most situations. When an attorney gets caught using unscrupulous methods, they can lose their license or face other disciplinary actions.


Judges are more likely to respond to an attorneys motions. When a pro-se individual walks in the courtroom,  judges become inherently skeptical because a lot of unrepresented parties file frivolous claims, so the courts are often opposed against them.  No, this isn’t in every case and there have been successful pro se litigants that have filed and won lawsuits on their own behalf. But in our opinion, the odds are stacked even more so against you in doing so.




There was a case where U.S. District judges were reprimanded for failing to address the claims of litigants who represented themselves “pro-se”.


In Pearson v. Prison Health Service, No. 16-1140, (3d Cir. 2017), the U.S. District Court judges had characterized all the litigation of all pro se litigants as frivolous. In this case, the defendant was suffering from appendicitis and writhing in pain. He was forced to crawl across the floor and received no accommodations from an indifferent prison medical staff.


Anyone who would have read this set of facts would have seen the obvious merit of the claims. Yet, because a self-represented litigant may be missing pieces of the puzzle, few judges have faith in them following through with their claims. Therefore, all the work expended on a case usually adds up to nothing. The court did agree that the claims had merit but only after a licensed attorney restated them pro bono on appeal. This shows the dichotomy and the stigma that even the best self-representing litigants face because of the many novices who file bad legal work.


Most People Aren’t Fit for Pro-se


Most people simply don’t have the time to educate themselves on the complexity and intricacies of the law. For example, attorneys and law firms spend years studying and becoming experts of the law. Some, just in a single area or practice such as auto accidents, medical malpractice, and certain criminal cases require higher levels of expertise and experience. For instance, in Virginia, in order to represent someone in a death penalty case, you have to qualify under Virginia Code § 19.2-163.8. There are valid reasons courts take this necessary precaution, especially when dealing with a death penalty case.  There is no room for error. You only have one chance to get it right.


Case Law


Case-law is constantly being shaped by new opinions and what are called precedents. For this reason, most law firms try to keep their focus on a limited scope of legal actions. Few attorneys like to work outside of the garden variety tasks that they deal with on a daily basis. Most attorneys fill out forms and rehash the same case-law and procedures for every case. This type of rhythm is the only way to make the work profitable. 


The difference in what a high-end attorney charges and an economy attorney can represent the difficulty of the work that they are prepared to handle. The more complex and novel the litigation, the more money you must pay an attorney to appropriately research and develop the issues. The truth is that a lot of law is left intentionally gray. This makes it hard for an attorney to litigate claims because so many open questions exist for particular factual situations. 


There are two different types of case decisions that have relevance to a matter. A case may have relevance if it evokes the same general principle. For example, if someone killed someone with a knife or a bow and arrow, murder is murder as a matter of principle and should lead to the same punishments. However, the facts can also change in situations to make a court guess of whether the principle still applies. If someone breaks into your house, for example, and you shoot them. Are you entitled to self-defense or have the right to protect your family? That may be clear if the person who dies is a bad guy but less clear if it was a loved one like the famous Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp case.


Bright-line rules


The strongest precedents will be those that are factually indistinguishable to your current case. For example, if an attorney failed to file a notice of appeal on time, it is safe to say that a general rule can apply, regardless of other facts, based on the simple fact that he failed to file it. In these cases, the courts may even construct bright-line rules. A bright-line rule is a per se rule that has little regard for the particular facts if a certain fact and principle is met. Bright-line rules in the courts are few because most issues are mixed questions of fact and law.


Because most laymen have no idea how to sort cases and what they mean to judges, it can be extremely difficult to get any traction in the courts. Obviously, there are few exceptions to this rule and there have been plenty of successful pro se litigants. But again, they are far and few in between.


When some experienced pro se litigants represent themselves, the courts have two options. They can either give them a hard time or they can be more lenient because they recognize the pro- se is typically not as knowledgeable as a licensed attorney. It truly depends on the gravity of the issue and the judge presiding over the case.  The judges can be fair with procedural matters but unfair on complex litigation that would require exhaustive research to properly review.


Should You Represent Yourself Pro-se?


Whether you should represent yourself “pro-se” is the million-dollar question and ultimately up to you. It can be a choice of preference, financial capability, or simply, you have no other option.  There are definitely times when even an attorney will tell you to go ahead and file something yourself. You may be able to file a Notice of Appeal with the help of an attorney. It is a simple form that can be filled out in a matter of minutes. Or if you have a simple divorce, this too can usually be completed by simply filing some forms.


When it comes to more complex matters, you need a lot of legal resources, experience, and time to have a good chance of success, even in the fairest of courts.


Some self-styled litigants are extremely talented and can master law in a few years. However, most find themselves struggling even with basic grammar and putting together a concise and coherent filing. The courts have shot back by creating a strict page and word limits on many documents. In other cases, excessive pages and wordiness will simply lead them to ignore your claims, no matter how strong the arguments may be. For each of the foregoing reasons, you probably shouldn’t represent yourself unless you have a substantial formal or informal legal education and have resources to gather support for your perspectives.


Pro Se Litigants


A  “pro-se” litigant may be considered a novice. Failing to conform to the rules and dragging on proceedings for years. Although some experienced pro se litigants may be more educated and skilled than others, they still face a stigma regarding complex legal issues. “If you weren’t formally trained, how could you possibly know the answer?” is the question of many courts.




Now that you’ve learned more about the definition of pro-se. What do you think? Are you up to the challenge of representing yourself? Or do you think hiring an experienced lawyer to fight on your behalf is best for your situation?



The materials available at this web site are for informational purposes only. Furthermore, it is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. So, you should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Website or any of the websites contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship nor is Fightingdads, LLC a law firm or attorney. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author. And may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney.



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