Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Under the right circumstances, you may be able to represent yourself in a California court
There are many explanations why someone would consider to represent him or herself in a California court:
In criminal cases, the court will appoint a public defender, if you can not afford a lawyer in California. But you do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney in ANY other type of case because you can't afford one.
You are not entitled to have a lawyer in small claims cases.
Whatever the reasons are, in all cases in California, you have the right to defend yourself and be your own lawyer. But just because you're allowed to represent yourself doesn't mean that you should. To represent yourself in court, you must first think about what is at stake if you lose your case.
What to consider when deciding if you want to represent yourself
The idea of hiring a lawyer in California to represent you is always a smart idea. Lawyers didn't spend years studying the law for nothing. But it is not always appropriate or feasible, as we just explained.
You should hire a lawyer if:
You have a tough case or a situation that may become difficult (but keep in mind you may not always know a case is or could be complicated until you are in front of a judge).
You want legal clarification.
You want to discuss your case tactics, such as where to file your complaint, whether to file a reply, whether to request a jury and several other decisions that will occur during the case.
You want a confidential attorney-client relationship.
You are afraid that the other side will not treat you fairly (a lawyer is well trained to notice this and what steps to take).
You will have a jury trial, and from picking a jury to deciding how to most efficiently bring a case to a jury, there are many other difficult choices to make.
You are too attached to the situation emotionally and have a tough time viewing stuff objectively.
Maybe you don't need a lawyer if:
Your situation is very clear and simple because there is no opposite side (such as a request to change your legal name) or the other side, and you compromise on all terms (like an uncontested divorce, stepparent adoption, or guardianship of a child where everyone agrees).
You know all of your choices, and you can make educated decisions about your situation.
You are able to spend a few months to study the law and the laws and procedures that apply to your situation and to recognize them.
You spend enough time getting your case ready.
You follow written directions and function on your own.
Tips for representing yourself in a California court
Here are some main steps that you should take to ensure that you can defend yourself in a California court:
A. Learn about the rule that your case relates to. Ask for help at the self-help center of your court, family law facilitator, or small claims legal office. Do study at the local public law library and make sure you are doing what you are supposed to.
B. Look at the solutions without having to go to court that will fix your problem. You may pursue alternative dispute resolution (ADR), for example, such as mediation or arbitration. Read our segment on Settling The Conflict Out of Court for more information on how to settle cases out of court.
C. Make sure you follow the procedures of the courts. You need to read the laws surrounding your case to do this:
Civil Procedure Code of California
Rules of a California court
Local rules of your superior court
Not being an attorney and not recognizing the law is not an excuse for failing to obey court procedures.
A. Keep track of all deadlines, particularly deadlines for filing papers and representing the other side. You can lose your case if you miss these deadlines.
B. Go and watch some cases in the courtroom where your trial will be. You will learn:
Where the parties are sitting;
How to explain to the judge your case; and how to explain your case;
How much time each side has to speak for itself.
For your court appearance, be prepared. Have copies of:
A. All the papers which you have filed;
B. All the papers you've been served with on the other side; and
C. Anything, on the other hand, that you have not worked but intend to use in court. If you have exhibits (such as photographs or letters you want to present to the court), you should properly label each item to make sure they are organized.
Act in court professionally. Explain your side clear and briefly. Do not address problems that do not help your argument.
Be honest about what can and can't be done by the prosecutor. Make sure that you understand and reflect on what legal relief you can get in your case.
In the courtroom, show reverence for the judge, the court clerks, and other individuals. Do not disturb the other side of the judge.
Risks when you represent yourself in a California court
The greatest danger is that you lose your case because (1) you are unable to follow all the requisite steps to carry your case to trial so that your case is dismissed, or (2) you are unable to satisfy all the technical criteria to prove your case once you get to trial.
The judge will probably order you to pay for the legal expenses on the other side and attorney's fees if you lose your case, which can be a lot of money. The costs of suing are often higher than the amount you are suing for.
If you lose your case and the judge orders you to cover the other party's expenses, you will receive a judgment against you. This means you now owe the other side money instead of winning money or some kind of relief.
A judgment against you is valid for ten years and can be extended for a further ten years before the judgment is paid, as many times as is required. It can result in your salary being garnished, your bank accounts levied, property liens, and other collection methods.
Types of cases in which California attorneys are required
> Cases of malpractice: If you are suing for medical malpractice or any other form of professional negligence, the law states you ought to show that:
The doctor or other professional violated (broke) the duty of care owed to you and
As a direct cause of the violation, you incurred damages. It is really hard to prove these legal criteria, and you would need expert witnesses to do it. Next, there are very expensive expert witness fees.
If you have a California lawyer defending you on a "contingency" basis (meaning the lawyer is only paying if you win), the lawyer will typically recruit and pay upfront for the expert witness. Still, once the case is over, you will not have to compensate the lawyer. If you represent yourself and do not have a lawyer to cover these fees, you will not be able to afford the experts that you need to prove your case. It can also be very difficult to get an expert witness to convince the court that they are an expert and should be handled by a professional and qualified lawyer.
> Cases of construction defects: Cases of construction defects also rely on expert experts to confirm or disprove the complaint's claims. This might not be valid for a small case in which the property owner employed a handyman or contractor to do a single job on the property, and one person did all the work.
If you had several contractors working on your house (such as an architect, an engineer, and a general contractor who in turn, employed subcontractors and order materials from various suppliers), it would be very difficult to prove who is at fault when something went wrong. You would need an expert witness to assess the fault and justify it to the court.
Also, while construction specialists are typically not as costly as medical experts, they can still cost a lot, particularly if you need a lot of experts in various specialties. Expert costs can run into tens of thousands of dollars for these types of cases. You might be able to employ a California lawyer to assist you with some aspects of the case on a limited-scope basis while you handle other parts on your own.
> Cases involving competing for real estate title: real estate cases that allege fraud committed by others, such as cases in which a real estate title is competing, are typically too difficult for a person without a lot of legal knowledge and experience. Even even though you win, if you make an error in drafting the final order (in civil cases, the judge normally does not prepare orders, it is up to the parties to do so the title insurance provider does not cover the title, potentially stopping you from selling or refinancing as the owner of the house.
> Cases involving unfair termination or work discrimination claims: You would most likely need a qualified California employment lawyer if you are suing your employer for workplace discrimination or wrongful termination. It is difficult to prove these cases, and the employer's attorneys typically battle these cases aggressively. You must have a lawyer qualified in the direct and cross-examination of witnesses and the rules of evidence to win this sort of case. You can request an employment lawyer for free here.
> Personal injury cases: The insurance policy is the single most daunting thing you have to deal with; that's where the rubber hits the road; the only thing a personal injury attorney can do is to be direct about it and get coverage for the customer from the personal injury compensation insurance company. That's the only role we really have in personal injury, to get reimbursement for the hospital costs and missed salaries accrued and most importantly, for the pain and distress, the inconvenience and discomfort a clients has suffered because of another person's negligence. Request a free personal injury review here.
> Administrative briefs and appeals: In the form of review that the court can make, cases appealing a final judgment by an administrative agency or hearing officer are highly complicated and limited. If you have a sufficient basis in the record for an appeal and explore other options with you, a lawyer will tell you.
How To Find Honest Lawyers In California
You should immediately consult with a pre-screened California attorney with experience in the California court system. To get an unbiased referral to a pre-screened California attorney you should:
By calling the 24-hour lawyer referral hotline at 1-661-310-7999