Plaintiff/defendant foolishly represents himself in court; how does he get destroyed?

It would be extraordinarily foolish for a plaintiff or defendant (ignorant and inexperienced in legal matters) to represent himself in U.S. court with no legal counsel (or, completely overriding his legal counsel) - a competent prosecutor or attorney on the opposing side would easily eat his lunch - but how exactly would this go down?

What tactics would the opposing side use?

Bait him into contradictory statements?

Ask trap questions?

Get him to reveal information he shouldn’t?

Too many variables here to answer, but pro se parties generally have a difficult time even dealing with the procedural aspects of litigation. I’ve won a case against a pro se plaintiff simply because he failed to file a brief before a deadline. Courts generally are very generous with pro se litigants, however, and will often grant their requests for extensions of time or other measures to correct such procedural mistakes.

More typically, I’ve won against pro se plaintiffs because they simply don’t understand the law. I practice civil (not criminal) law, and in my experience plaintiffs who can’t find legal representation are in that condition because they don’t have much legal basis for their claims. A lawyer who reviews their case sees that and knows it, but the plaintiff typically doesn’t (despite being turned down by several attorneys already). In these cases, I haven’t had to do much else than file for summary judgment and ask for dismissal.
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Pretty much the above. They just lose on a combination of substance and procedure.

Substance: if your case has merit, some attorney somewhere will try to monetize it, especially a plaintiffs’ attorney; since they typically don’t get paid unless you recover, being rejected by multiple attorneys is typically a referendum on the substantive merits of your case. So anyone who comes before (or against) me pro se probably doesn’t have a very good case.

Procedure: getting shit done properly is difficult. Practicing attorneys screw it up. Even with the latitude given to pro se litigants, things typically have to be filed on time, in the right place, address the merits, and apply the facts to the law. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how the other stuff shakes out.

Also, decorum is part of procedure. You don’t talk over or argue with the judge. And it’s not that he doesn’t get it, I assure you, so never yell that at him. :stuck_out_tongue:

Finally, it bears noting that the deference given to pro se litigants is significant, and trying to trick or railroad them makes you look bad, and people notice. Given the above, there’s no real reason to big-league them.

On the criminal side: most pro se defendants don’t understand the rules of evidence, and get frustrated trying to introduce the facts they believe would be helpful.

“Tell us about your career.”

“Objection. Calls for narrative.”

The proper question: “What is your job?” or even better “Were you employed on June 4th, 2009? (‘Yes.’) / Who was your employer on that date? (‘Walmart’) / What job did you perform for Walmart at that time? (‘Loss prevention specialist’)”

Those kinds of problems arise for, let’s say, ordinary litigants.

Other pro se litigants:

“Now officer, when you stopped me for speeding and seized me in violation of the Natural Law of Man, do you admit I had not created joinder with you?”

“Your Honor, the Uniform Commercial Code requires that you provide me with your Oath of Office, and the flag behind you has gold fringe, which means this is admiralty court.”

I represented myself in a civil matter, but opposing counsel was also pro se and not very bright. I won easily. The plaintiff repeatedly tried to testify about what others had said. I repeatedly objected, “objection, heresay”, and my objections were sustained. Eventually the plaintiff lost it on both me and the magistrate, and called the process “fucking ridiculous”.

Additionally, he had no case, which helped me tremendously. :smiley:

There are some common and necessary concepts in the law which can be counter-intuitive. For example, appeals do not involve relitigating the trial ab initio. So just saying the jury got it wrong, saying it should not have accepted the prosecution evidence and just re-fighting the battle at the trial won’t typically work.

Also, on many occasions the law recognises that binary ideas of “correct” and “incorrect” don’t work. There is a large space in which reasonable minds can differ. Thus, it is often the case that on appeal the trial judge’s exercise of discretion will stand even if the appellant court would not necessarily have made the same decision. And of course the technical rules of evidence like hearsay confuse even lawyers.

Another issue is the general inadmissiblity of self-serving statements made out of court (“I must be telling the truth because I told all my friends about it - that’s what you do when you are telling the truth”) that would be part of any social narrative of events but not a legal one. This is a specific example of not generally getting the idea of focusing on the issues at hand. Lay people think everythingis relevant. They don’t understand the restrictions on pursuing collateral issues.

Laypeople often assert that these things “get in the way of justice”, and claim “they just want to tell their story”. What they don’t realise is that if those rules were dispensed with altogether, trials would become rambling unfocused investigations of dry gullies and rabbit holes, with side issues being litigated with an intensity that overtook the primary issues at trial.

And bending the rules just for them, to allow for their ignorance, would be to provide unequal justice. The other side is entitled not to be sucked into an expensive vortex.
Of course SovCits are a special case. Among many failings, they don’t seem to understand the fundamental idea that the judge gets to rule on questions of law, and if she rules against the SovCit, that is the end of things no matter how emotionally frustrating it is for the SovCit. They seem to think that the mere assertion by them of what the law is somehow binds all who hear.

In a criminal case, if you try to represent yourself as a defendant, aren’t you effectively waiving at least some of your Fifth Amendment protections just by putting yourself out there?

I just had a meeting with a friend who wants to set up a new business. The friend is in management of a manufacturing company and is quite knowable about logistics and such. However, their company only does OEM, e.g., they manufacture products to other company’s specs. He has no experience at all with marketing research, let alone actually translating an idea into a competitive product. Just as lawyers are the butt of many jokes, lots of engineers look down on marketeers.

However, his presentation was cringe worthy. He and his engineer buddy have spent far too long looking at the wrong things and not enough at more essential items, neglecting some completely. He’s the husband of my wife’s best friend from first grade. That was the only reason I didn’t laugh out loud.

They are looking for people to join them, but he doesn’t know enough to realize he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He has a gut feeling that their envisioned product is a winner but doesn’t understand how to properly judge it. Research doesn’t matter when you know it’s cool, right? And there isn’t a competitor now, so that proves that it will succeed.

I suspect that this is the case for pro se parties in a trial. “Well, it ain’t right” doesn’t fly in court.

Interesting. So how exactly should someone approach an appeal? In order to win, you have to introduce something new that wasn’t there in the first trial/hearing? Or perhaps sincerely persuade the appellate court that the lower court did indeed make a mistake?

Thanks **Bricker, dofe, Nole Prosequi, Happy Scrappy Hero Pup, **et. al. for the great info thus far.

Just picture the pro se as Vinnie on the first hour of my cousin Vinnie.

I’m not an attorney but I believe that generally you can’t bring up new stuff on appeal that wasn’t brought up during the trail.

Generally, you have to point to something that went wrong in the first trial. On the evidence presented, no reasonable jury could have convicted. On the evidence presented, the prosecution failed to prove an essential element of the charge, and the case should never have gone to the jury. The judge wrongly excluded certain evidence. The judge wrongly admitted certain evidence. The judge erred in law when he bound by [such-and-such a precedent]. The judge erred when he applied this rule, which when correctly understood does not address the facts in this case; he should have applied that rule, which would have produced a different outcome. And so forth.


And there’s another wrinkle. On appeal, not only are you generally barred from presenting new evidence, but you can’t present a new objection.

What does this mean? On appeal, it’s not enough to say, “The judge wrongly admitted this evidence.” You must also show that you objected to this admission at trial. If you did, then the appeals court will consider your argument. But if you didn’t object at trial, and are raising the complaint for the first time on appeal, the appeals court will only review the error under a very difficult standard called “plain error,” where you must show that the error was so fundamental it called into question the basic fairness and justice you received at trial.

At least around here pro se civil litigants are given a tremendous amount of nudging in the right direction by the court, and latitude on time limits and so on. And there are pro se litigants who win, so the idea that an unrepresented litigant will get destroyed is actually quite wrong.

My experience is civil not criminal (Noel’s being the latter I believe).

Actually, in civil cases:

is the crux of it.

Most civil cases do not go to trial. Around here over 90% of cases settle. Why? Because on each side there are professional lawyers who take an objective look at their client’s case and generally both sides reach a similar view about which side is going to win. So they settle accordingly. What cases do go to trial? There’s a number of categories. Prominent amongst them are cases where the law or facts are highly unsettled such that it’s hard for either side to know if they will win or lose, and the stakes are high enough to risk “rolling the dice”. That is the type of case that probably should go to trial.

Another (big) category is where one side has an erroneously optimistic view of their own prospects of success, such that they don’t settle when they should.

Pro se litigants typically have no one giving them objective advice about whether or not their case is completely crap, or will not take that advice when given. They are usually utterly passionate about their case. Their friends etc probably play along or know no more than they do.

Consequently they have a high chance of taking to trial a matter that should have settled or never been litigated in the first place, leading to a predictable crash and burn at trial.

Just for illustration a few years ago a Doper was appearing as a litigant in person in a (IIRC) Civil Appeal. Said Doper was very confident and hopeful of success. Pretty much every lawyer on the Dope was less so and advised the Doper of that fact. The result? The Doper was defeated. That thread shows many of the pitfalls a real life pro se Litigant faces.

I represented myself on a rather minor matter, challenging a parking citation. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered but the city (Madison, WI) had a system that was plainly a huge violation of state law and constitutional right of due process. And I won. Seems like the judge had been down this path before and was upset the city had not taken notice of prior rulings

In short, if a city is going to have employees write parking tickets they must include on the ticket everything explicitly required by state law, particularly some reasonable reference to what violation was alleged. And yes, the city must include that on a summons if the person receiving the ticket goes to court. The city didn’t.

I went to pay but asked “What is violation #14?” which was all that was written on the ticket. I didn’t want to keep getting tickets and it was not obvious to me what violation I might have committed. The cashier replied “We don’t have to tell you.” I got basically the same reply when I asked the city’s parking office.

So I went to the library and looked up the law. I presume this is a step most pro se parties skip. I was looking for some list of codes in the law (such as #8 is parking at expired meter, #12 is parking in a no parking zone, etc…) but there was no such list. But the law did specify that for a citation to be valid the law violated must be on the citation. It wasn’t.

The judge ruled in my favor and dismissed the parking ticket by finding the form using to not be a valid citation, a ruling that would apply equally to any parking citation issued in the city at that time. I wonder if things have changed or if the city went right back to doing things their old way?

Oh, and the #14 charge was apparently parking too close to a handicapped ramp. I couldn’t see the ramp for the snow. But if the cashier and the person at the parking office hadn’t been such an ass and told me what the violation was I would have just paid the the thing.

That’s really weird.

Yes, weird. They could have just printed a list on the citation form for reference, or written the citation to the section of law violated.

I wouldn’t have bothered but I was parking in my new neighborhood and didn’t want to keep getting tickets.

It was a long time ago, and maybe it was a different number than #14. I now find a list of codes available online here (pdf link) so maybe the city is being a bit more open than before.

It’s probably the end result of a policy that they not give anything that has the slightest appearance of being legal advice.

But thats not legal advice. Many jurisdiction require public bodies (and police is a public body) to give reasons as to why an action has been taken and telling a person what provision they are in violation of is one of that.