Pro se or say “pro”
Magisterial District 05-2-42 News: Judge Leah Williams Duncan Esq.
The term “pro se” is a Latin phrase meaning “for self” or “in one’s own behalf.” A person appearing in court or conducting legal business without an attorney is said to be acting “pro se.” At the Magisterial District court level, well over 50% of litigants appear “pro se.” Obviously there is no requirement that a person have an attorney in these matters however there are many times when one simply has to say “I need a pro.” The following is a general overview of what to consider when making the decision to go “pro se” or to ask for a “pro.”
First and foremost, when faced with a legal challenge, even one you think you may be able to handle on your own, it is never a bad idea to at least consult an attorney. It’s great if you know a pro who will answer some general questions for you but if you don’t have such a connection, the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service may be a helpful resource. This service which connects members of the community with attorneys qualified to handle their specific legal situations may be reached by visiting GetAPittsburghLawyer.com.
Secondly, it is important to know that criminal cases are different from all others. Criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to be represented by an attorney while defendants in most all civil proceedings have no such right. Further, a criminal defendant unable to afford counsel has the right to appointed counsel at the government’s expense. In Allegheny County, a defendant may seek representation through the Office of the Public Defender online at alleghenycounty.us/ public-defender/contact. Representation at no cost may also be provided in non-criminal actions such as traffic offenses or Family Division contempt proceedings when there is a possibility of incarceration and in Protection From Abuse (PFA) actions when certain liberties are at stake. Additionally, all minors facing delinquency petitions or criminal charges have a right to free representation regardless of personal or family income.
Outside of the Criminal Division, the decision to either act pro se or to ask for a pro depends on many factors. Questions to consider in making this decision are:
- Does your case involve a complex legal issue? Even when you strongly believe you are morally or factually “right” there is a chance that you could still be legally wrong.
- Could your case result in a significant loss of money or property? It is important to take the time to determine if your monetary or tangible loss would exceed the cost of a consultation or legal representation.
- Is there a chance that your issue could be resolved without going to court? Some conflicts may be resolved through mediation or other efforts if both sides are simply willing to come to the table. Are there alternative services available that may be able to assist you? Help is available through the following resources among others:
- Client Services Center (1st floor, Family Law Center, 440 Ross St., Pittsburgh) — Pro se litigants in the Family Division (regardless of income) may utilize the services of the CSC for assistance with Court processes. A Domestic Relations Officer (DRO) will provide litigants with procedural information, which will allow the litigant to determine how best to move forward with their case. The DRO will not provide legal advice or instruct a party as to what they should do.
- Neighborhood Legal Services (928 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh) — NLS secures justice and resolves fundamental legal problems for those who are low-income and vulnerable. Types of services include but are not limited to family, housing, consumer, employment and elder law.
- Commission on Human Relations — at both the City and County levels, the CHRs have a mission to ensure equal treatment of members of protected classes against discrimination in matters of employment, housing and public accommodations. PghCHR may be accessed at (412) 255-2600. Allegheny County CHR may be accessed at (412) 350-6945.
Because our court system is adversarial in nature, navigating it alone can be somewhat scary and sometimes quite difficult. And while not every legal action requires that you go out and hire an attorney, the decision to act pro se should not be taken lightly. Consider the following:
- Don’t wait until you’re actually in court to decide that you want a pro. With the exception of criminal actions, most judges will not suspend active proceedings for a party to obtain legal representation even when one party has an attorney and the other does not.
- Do seek referrals from others who have had good experiences with their legal professionals.
- Don’t expect your case to be exactly the same as anyone else’s. Minor differences in facts and circumstances can make major differences in outcome.
- With very few exceptions, you can neither be forced to act pro se nor forced to ask for a pro. Just be sure to weigh the possible pros and cons of your decision. Be informed, be aware, be confident and DO remember that the choice is yours.