If you saw a person about to step in front of a bus would you act to save that person from certain disaster? Most of us would, thankfully. But what would you do if you saw someone about to make a disastrous mistake by representing himself in a legal proceeding? What if your friend or family member was about to wreck her future by representing herself in trial? Again, I believe we would try to prevent certain ruin of a friend or family member if we could.
Would you suspect there are forces at work that actually encourage people to take on serious legal matters themselves even though the average person has no idea what he or she is doing in court. A person who represents himself is called a pro se litigant or simply a pro se (pronounced Prō Sā). I believe the two main culprits of legal disaster for pro ses are indeed well-meaning, but their efforts actually put people in more jeopardy. Pro se litigants often make mistakes on their forms that have serious consequences, and pro ses are easy prey for the attorneys on the other side of their cases.
There is a perceived gap in legal coverage between the really poor and the wealthy. The truly poor are able to have attorneys appointed for the most serious cases or qualify for pro bono legal aid. The wealthy can afford their own attorneys. But the middle class can’t spare $100,000 for a criminal defense, or $40,000 for a divorce, or $50,000 for an ugly probate matter.
To help fill this gap in coverage, two main forces have emerged, the Texas Supreme Court and document production companies. These two forces are seeking to solve the problem by empowering pro ses to do their own legal work. The Texas Supreme Court has promulgated rules and forms that allow and encourage pro ses to file, prosecute, and complete their own legal matters. Meanwhile the document production companies you hear advertised on the radio promise to supply you with all the forms you need to handle your own legal matter, but the “fine print” states they are not law firms, and do not offer legal advice. That should tell you something.
The result of the efforts to close the coverage gap is that people are getting themselves into serious trouble because forms don’t do everything required to solve the legal matter completely. For example, I know of people who have legally changed their name to “Petitioner” because they incorrectly filled out a form requesting a name change. I have seen people give up their fair share of the equity in their home in a divorce because they filled out the form incorrectly. I have seen what should have been a simple probate of a will turn into a nightmare costing the heirs tens of thousands of dollars in litigation because the Last Will and Testament was a fill-in-the-blank form that was not properly signed, and witnessed.
People have an absolute right to represent themselves in legal matters. That does not mean people SHOULD! Lawyers go through years of the most rigorous academic coursework to be found in our country to learn the law. I do not recommend anyone going pro se. There is too much at stake in any legal matter. The Supreme Court of Texas and the document production companies do not have to deal with trying to undo legal mistakes made by pro ses who had no idea what they were doing in court.
As always, this essay is intended to be educational in nature, and is not a substitute for competent legal counsel. If you or someone you know is facing a legal matter I absolutely recommend retaining competent legal representation. It is always easier and less expensive to finish a case right the first time, and in many cases, once a final order has been rendered there is no undoing it.
#youngblood-law #tarrantcounty #fortworth #prose #representmyself