Let’s face it, attorneys can be expensive and depending on your situation, you may not have the money available to pay a retainer. However, sometimes your legal issues can’t wait for your financial situation to improve. Knowing where to go for help in representing yourself is the first step towards fighting your own battles. Our 10 Keys to Representing Yourself is designed to assist pro se litigants who have pressing legal issues but can’t afford to hire an attorney. We provide you with resources to represent yourself as well as types of cases in which you may be able to get an attorney without paying money upfront.
1) Do-It-Yourself Packets
The system is not always against you. Representing yourself can be daunting. There are many cases where proceeding without an attorney is not advised. However, there are resources available for pro se litigants, commonly referred to as Do-It-Yourself packets. These are often available at your local legal aid office or courthouse and only require filling in blanks. In North Carolina the areas which have the most resources available are child custody, child support, small claims court, and absolute divorces.
If you’re seeking regular visitation with your children seeking to establish paternity or looking to relocate, don’t let your financial situation affect your constitutional parental rights. If you’re looking to file for custody here are some great resources to assist you.
- NC Bar Child Custody and Child Support Guide
- Factors Considered in Custody Cases (lawhelpnc.org)
Absolute divorces are also a very common area in which people frequently represent themselves. Outside of the library of free resources, many county courts separate pro-se divorces from divorces involving attorneys in order to make the process easier for unrepresented parties. Some sample absolute divorce guides are below:
- Wake County Pro Se Absolute Divorce Packet
- Durham County Divorce Packet Instructions
- Lawhelpnc.org Divorce Packet
2) Small Claims Court Caters to Pro Se Litigants
If you have a claim seeking damages of less than $10,000.00 (may vary by county) you can file it in small claims court. There are many informative guides and forms for small claims court, which makes filing, obtaining a court date, and serving the opposing party very easy and accessible. Small claims cases do not have juries and very rarely involve attorneys. If you lose in small claims court you can appeal it to district court and re-litigate your case. Legal Aid’s Guide to Small Claims Court provides all the information you’ll need to get your claim filed in North Carolina.
3) Contingent Fee Cases
In some cases attorneys may agree to take your case on a contingent fee basis, meaning the attorney only recovers if you do. The typical types of cases which contingent fee arrangements may be an option are: personal injury, workers’ compensation, wrongful death, and nursing home negligence. While uncommon, attorneys can also represent you on a contingent fee basis in equitable distribution cases. Contingent fees typically range from 15% – 33% of your total recovery, whether the recovery is via settlement or trial verdict. If you have a case in one of these areas, it is not difficult to find an attorney who will speak with you and evaluate your case for free. Whether or not an attorney will take your case on this basis depends on the value of your case and the attorney.
4) Attorney Fees Only
In cases where attorney fees can be awarded, you may be able to find representation where an attorneys only recover is from a court award. Cases involving child custody, contracts which provide for attorney fees (including separation agreements), and spousal support are some of the areas where you may be able to find an attorney who will represent you with no upfront fee. Again this is determined by the attorney on a case-by-case basis.
5) Be Respectful to Judges
One of the biggest mistakes made by unrepresented parties is not being respectful to the presiding judges. In many cases, the judge is the sole party responsible for determining the outcome of your case and the last person whose bad side you want to be on. In the heat of an emotional case, showing a lack of respect for a judges’ authority can result in an adverse decision and in particular egregious cases, can land you in a jail cell. Try to have a basic understanding of how to present your case when you’re unrepresented and if all else fails, when a judge tells you not to do something or to stop talking, it pays to listen, even if you don’t agree.
6) Know the Local Rules
Local rules can make or break your case and most people don’t know where to find them or have never even heard of them until an opposing attorney points out you’re not in compliance. If you’re representing yourself in any case, it is imperative that you read and study the local rules of the county in which your case is pending. Failure to do so can be case determinative. For more information on local rules, read one of our previous articles.
7) Legal Aid
In additional to the extensive self-help library and self-help clinics for pro se litigants, Legal Aid provides free legal help to low-income North Carolina residents in civil cases involving basic human needs, such as safety, shelter, and income. Legal Aid frequently assists clients in need of domestic violence protective orders, housing, employment, and consumer protection. Find the nearest legal aid office for assistance in any of these areas.
8) You Need Witnesses and Documents
Understand that in order to prove your version of events, your testimony is often times not going to be enough. If there are others who have firsthand knowledge of the key events in your case, bring them to court with you. If you have documents that support your testimony, bring the official copies of them to court with you. This article is not long enough to teach the rules of evidence, but the more informed you are about how a courtroom works the better.
9) Use Common Sense
A lot of options for out of court resolution your case exist, many of them are required by the court. Letting your emotions or hostility compromise your ability to settle a case can be a costly mistake. It is sometimes shocking to hear about the number of clients willing to pay an attorney $20,000.00 to resolve a $5,000.00 dispute. If you can help it, don’t be this person. While it may be painful to compromise and resolve your matter prior to trial, in the long run, you’ll be thrilled to have the extra money in your pocket.
Common sense can go a long way. If you receive an ordered signed by a judge it is a serious matter and understand that your “reason” for not complying with this order more often than not is not going to suffice. If you disagree with the content of an order, the best option is always to seek to change the order, not violate the order and county on explaining yourself in court later on. It is very rare that the judge will “understand” your predicament.
10) Consult with an Attorney
This may sound counterintuitive, but even if you have no intention of retaining an attorney, most attorneys will give you advice about your case in an initial consultation. You can gain valuable information about the legitimacy of your case or what next steps to take in moving your case along. Many attorneys will even draft essential documents on your behalf for a cheaper fee than actually representing you in court. A consultation fee can be worth the cost if it clears up some confusion in how to proceed pro se. For low cost initial consultations consider using the NCBA Lawyer Referral Service, which requires lawyers listed with the service to provide a 30 minute consultation for $50.00.
With these tools you should be well on your way to representing yourself. Don’t let your financial situation stop you from using the court system to protect your rights.