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Representing yourself in court

Court Matters

May 12, 2012
By Kurt D. Johnson - Judge of District Court

I have to admit that one of my biggest frustrations in court is pro se litigants, people who attempt to represent themselves, most often in criminal cases or family law cases such as divorce or child custody matters. Don't get me wrong, I realize it is expensive to hire a lawyer and most people who represent themselves are good folks and they have the right to represent themselves. My frustration is the process - they do not know what to do or how to do it. That is reality, not necessarily their fault. The result, however, is that I am frustrated because I am prohibited by law from giving them legal advice. They are frustrated and upset because they are unsure what to do and the whole process takes much longer than it should.

It seems over the last couple of years we have seen many more people representing themselves in court. I presume this is partially due to the economic downturn. But also the reality that hiring an attorney is expensive and some people simply cannot afford the cost.

Court rules allow a person to represent him or herself in court. But the rules also provide that that person is held to the same rules, procedures and standards as an attorney. The rule may seem harsh but it is necessary in order for court matters to proceed in an orderly and fair manner.

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Judge Kurt D. Johnson

The court system and judges are aware of the problems facing people trying to use the system with limited resources. In criminal matters a defendant may qualify to have a public defender appointed for them at low or no cost. In order to have a public defender appointed for them a person must ask and then fill out an income disclosure form. That document is then reviewed by a judge who determines if the person qualifies for a public defender.

Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) provides legal services at low or no cost to individuals who qualify. Lawyers from SMRLS are often in court representing people in family law, creditor/debtor cases and housing matters. SMRLS also has a number of local lawyers willing to volunteer their services to represent people unable to afford a lawyer.

Finally, the court system has set up a web site which is accessible by computer to provide assistance to people looking to represent themselves in court. This web site contains instructions and documents to be used in many areas of the law. There are many different forms for family law cases, particularly divorce cases that may be printed and filled out and then filed with the court. This self-help web site can be found at www.mncourts.gov. Once you access this public website click on the "self-help" box at the top of the page. Scroll down to the middle of the self-help page and click on the "I CAN" divorce forms. Follow the directions to fill out the forms you need. The Court Administrator's office in any county will provide you with computer access and direct you to the web site.

I encourage anyone who finds it necessary to represent themselves in court to ask for help and take advantage of one of these resources.

 
 

 

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