How to File a Lawsuit without an Attorney
Although in most cases it is the smartest choice to seek the professional legal counsel of an experienced attorney, there are many reasons that people want to represent themselves when filing a lawsuit, with saving money in attorney fees being the most common.
Anyone in the United States has the right to represent themselves in court and file a lawsuit without an attorney. In fact, when it comes to small claims court people are even encouraged to represent themselves, because small claims court was designed to be accessible to both lawyers and non-lawyers.
If you are considering taking on the task of representing yourself, an action known as pro se litigation, there are some measures that you can take to immensely benefit your case. The following is a simple step-by-step instruction manual intended to ease the process:
Identify The Five W’s
Who, what, when, where and why? Although a simple enough question, it is important that you make the distinction of who you are filing your claim against. For example, if you were in a car accident and either you incurred an injury or damage was done to your vehicle, you will have to decide whether you are going to file a claim against the other driver, the owner of the vehicle (if not the driver) or their insurance company.
You will also need to identify on what grounds your lawsuit is based and why you are seeking compensation. When, the issue of timing, needs to be addressed because most claims are subject to a statute of limitations. This means that you have a fixed time in which to bring about a lawsuit, from the time the event occurred.
Lastly, you will need to figure out where you will be filing your lawsuit. For example, many issues can be resolved in small claims court. The question of “where” also refers to the geographic region in which a case may be tried. You should research where the defendant lives, because you can file a suit either where they live or where the incident took place.
Filing The Petition
The petition is a document that acts as the foundation of your lawsuit. Your petition needs to include pertinent information regarding your case. In it you should provide your name and basic contact information such as phone number, home address and email address. You will also need to identify the defendant(s) you have chosen to sue. If you are suing an individual you may enter their residential address. For businesses and organizations you can list the address of the company.
Explain your proposition and make an argument in favor of your proposal, citing that it would be in the best interest of the general public. Supply any evidence that supports your case, such as photos from an accident, signed witness statements and any indication of injuries you suffered due to the event.
Next in the petition process, you must list your causes of action, or the claims that you are suing for. Also referred to as compensatory damages, these can include pain and suffering, lost income, projected lost wages, loss of consortium, compensation for hospital costs, mental anguish and many more. Punitive damages are those that are awarded by a judge to set an example and punish the defendant beyond compensatory damages.
If you wish to demand a trial by jury you will then need to make that declaration and whatever fee is imposed for doing so.
Finally, you will need to sign the petition and write “Pro Se Litigant” or “Pro Se Plaintiff” in the area that signifies the signature of an attorney. Upon completion, submit your Petition to the District Clerk’s Office. Once a decision has been made you will be notified of the outcome.
This is a part of the litigation process during which you may request information from the defendant that is relevant to your case. You will usually have 30 days to retrieve this information. The purpose of discovery is to allow you to find out pertinent information such as the defendant’s version of the facts, witness testimony they may have and any other documents or evidence. There are numerous methods of retrieving this knowledge:
- Request for admission
- Request for production of documents
- Request for inspection
Remember that you are not the only one with a time constraint. If you have any experts to support your case that you want to bring to the upcoming trial, you must identify them by a specific date. Even if you are using yourself as an expert witness, you must inform the court of those intentions.
Representing yourself in trial without an attorney present can seem scary and intimidating. Fortunately, more than 95% of cases reach an out-of-court resolution, so the chances of you having to appear in trial are slim.
If the time arrives that you find yourself having to prepare for trial, you will typically have an ample amount of time to set up your opening statement, prepare for witness testimony, learn when and why to object, and all about direct and cross examinations. Numerous resources exist on the Internet to help people ready themselves for trial.
The court will decide whether or not you will receive the damages you have sought. If you are not satisfied with the court’s determination you may appeal the decision within a set timeline. To appeal a court’s decision you must either provide evidence that the court originally overlooked, or have adequate reason to believe that a judge interpreted something inaccurately during the trial. The appellate court will then make the final judgement.
So should you represent yourself without an attorney?
In the majority of cases, it’s a bad idea to represent yourself. To many people, the fear of the cost of hiring an attorney is what holds them back from hiring a lawyer. The thought of not having to pay an lawyer is attractive to many people because they won’t have to pay attorneys fees if they win their case. However it is not uncommon, especially in the area of personal injury or product liability, for the insurance company to offer you pennies on the dollar for what your case is really worth. For example in a recent case, the injured victim was offered $25,000 by the insurance company before they hired an attorney. With the help of an experienced law firm, the plaintiffs ended up with a $23 million dollar verdict. While most cases are not nearly that size, it’s not uncommon for attorneys to be able to recover at least 5x (and sometimes far greater) that what the insurance company will offer you without the help of an attorney. So even after paying attorneys fees, you can end up with much more money then if you try to represent yourself. In addition, attorneys handling personal injury or product liability cases handle these on a contingency fee basis, meaning you don’t pay anything unless they win your case.×