Should You Handle Your Own Case in Court?
Woodland Hills personal injury lawyer Barry P. Goldberg meets with potential new clients on a regular basis. On many cases, the potential client asks whether he or she could handle their own case. Usually, the response is “maybe.” For smaller “fender-bender-type” cases, a potential client probably can represent themselves, if they are willing to do the work and learn the rules. Many clients understand that the expertise of the law firm and the hassle of dealing with the insurance companies is exactly why they are willing to pay a reasonable contingency fee to a skilled law firm.
However, there are cases that “flat out” should not be handled without proper legal representation. Whenever an injury is potentially “serious,” such as a broken bone or disc herniation, legal representation is critical. Also, if there is any “issue” concerning insurance liability or coverage, the average person is simply not equipped to take on that fight. Finally, any case that is likely to go to court is not a proper circumstance for self-representation. Consider this recent case where a dentist chose to represent himself in a court trial on a dental malpractice claim that should have been clearly barred by the statute of limitations. It resulted in a court judgment against him for over $300,000. It was affirmed on appeal.
Nonlawyers are at a Disadvantage
The Court in that case recognized the obvious truth: Nonlawyers who represent themselves in a civil trial are usually at a considerable disadvantage, as would be anyone attempting to function in a complex task without the necessary training, education, and experience. In fact, self-represented litigants are held to the same standards as lawyers because a contrary rule “would lead to a quagmire in the trial courts, and would be unfair to the other parties to litigation.” (Rappleyea v. Campbell (1994) 8 Cal.4th 975, 985 (Rappleyea).)
Knowledge of Procedures are Everything at Trial
The Court of Appeal highlighted that a case like this one demonstrated consequences that can result from uninformed self-representation. They failed to obtain a court reporter and did not request a statement of decision. With no reporter’s transcript and no statement of decision, the Court of Appeal was unable to review the statute of limitations defense. Moreover, with no statement of decision, the Court of Appeal must presume the trial court made all findings necessary to support the judgment for which there is substantial evidence. (LSREF2 Clover Property 4, LLC v. Festival Retail Fund 1, LP (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 1067, 1076.)
The Judge Probably will not Help You Too Much
The Defendant also contended that the court should have helped them by advising them to litigate the statute of limitations issue and to request a statement of decision. However, although a trial judge should ensure a cause is not defeated by mere inadvertence of a self-represented party, a trial court has no obligation to develop a self-represented party’s case as well as judge it. (Lombardi v. Citizens Nat. Trust etc. Bank (1955) 137 Cal.App.2d 206, 208-210 (Lombardi).) “Litigants who choose to represent themselves must be treated in the same manner as other litigants and attorneys and must follow correct rules of procedure.” (Cal. Judges Benchbook: Civil Proceedings Before Trial (CJER 2017) Parties, § 10.103, p. 768.)
There is a Reason Lawyers go to Law School and have to Pass a Difficult Exam!
With the Internet, everyone thinks that they can handle a case. It is telling that the Court of Appeal disagreed:
There are good reasons why a law degree usually requires three years of full time rigorous study, and a license to practice law in California is issued only after one achieves a passing score on a rigorous written examination.
Trying a case in the superior court is often a challenging and demanding task requiring proficiency in many areas of law and trial practice. Nevertheless, although an individual has a “right to act as his own attorney,” he or she is “‘restricted to the same rules of evidence and procedure as is [sic] required of those qualified to practice law before our courts; otherwise, ignorance is unjustly rewarded.'” (Lombardi, supra, 137 Cal.App.2d at pp. 208-209.) A self-represented party is due the same consideration as any other party from trial and appellate courts, but no greater. (Rappleyea, supra, 8 Cal.4th at p. 985.) Accordingly, contrary to Defendant’s assertions, a judge is not required to help a self-represented litigant present his or her evidence. (Lombardi, supra, 137 Cal.App.2d at p. 209.) Nor is a judge required to act as counsel for a party. (Taylor, supra, 21 Cal.App.3d at p. 1008.)
So, should you represent yourself? Maybe! But, it is important to consider the down sides if the case involves even the most basic disputes. Clearly, an individual has a “right to act as his own attorney,” However, once the case requires litigation, a party should hire a qualified trial lawyer such as the Canoga Park injury Lawyer locals trust with knowledge training and experience.
Thanks to authors at Barry P. Goldberg for their insight into Personal Injury Litigation.