Should You Represent Yourself in Debt Law?
Hiring a lawyer might be the “gold standard” of defense, but lawyers are expensive. If you’re being sued by a debt collector and can’t afford a lawyer, all is not lost. You CAN represent yourself. This is not complicated law, debt collectors are not innovative or particularly energetic. And the debt collection system is a “factory” approach not designed to work against people who defend themselves intelligently. You can do it.
Okay – maybe debt defense isn’t always very fun. In fact, most of the time it isn’t exactly fun, but it is easier than you expect, And winning is great. Going from worrying about having to pay from $1,000 to $50,000 to some debt collector, to having them drop the case – or to settling with you for pennies on the dollar IS fun. It changes the way you look at debt and debt law forever.
Pro se legal means representing yourself rather than hiring a lawyer to do it for you. You have the right to do that in essentially any court proceeding, whether as defendant or plaintiff.
Pro se is a Latin phrase meaning “for oneself.” You will sometimes see it called propria persona (abbreviated to “pro per”). In England and Wales, the comparable status is called “litigant in person.” Not that it matters, right?
Some Think It’s Scary
Although many people fear the thought of representing themselves in court, pro se representation is not rare. According to National Center on State Courts in 1991-92 71% of domestic relations (family law) cases had at least one unrepresented party. In 18% of the cases both parties were pro se. It is a growing trend in debt collection law as well .
People have long had the right to self-representation in the United States. That right predates even the ratification of the Constitution. Section 35 of the Judiciary Act of 1789—enacted by the first Congress and signed by President Washington, states that, “in all the courts of the United States, the parties may plead and manage their own causes personally or by the assistance of counsel.” Most states have a similar constitutional provision.
Will the Courts Protect You from Mistakes?
The California rules of Civil Procedure explicitly prefer resolving every case on the merits. This applies even if doing it requires excusing a mistake by a pro se litigant that would otherwise result in a dismissal. The Judicial Council says that “Judges are charged with ascertaining the truth, not just playing referee.” And the Council suggests “the court should take whatever measures may be reasonable and necessary to insure a fair trial.”
Most states and the federal courts officially share this bias in favor of hearing courts on “their merits,” (based on what is actually fair). Pro se litigants cannot rely on any special treatment, however. Some courts explicitly will not extend favorable treatment to non-professional litigants. Our position has always been that you should know the rules. Knowing the rules means you can use them. And one secret of debt law is that it is the debt collectors who rely on leniency. You need to prevent that if possible.
Pro Se Litigants Often Do Very Well
Pro se litigants usually do not need extra help. According to Erica J. Hashimoto, an assistant professor at the Georgia School of Law, criminal defendants are “not necessarily ill-served” by the decision to represent themselves. In state court, pro se defendants charged with felonies probably fared much better than represented defendants.
Of the 234 pro se defendants studied by Ms. Hashimoto, “just under 50 percent of them were convicted on any charge….for represented state court defendants, by contrast, a total of 75 percent were convicted of some charge.” And just 26 percent of the pro se defendants ended up with felony convictions, whereas 63 percent of represented defendants in Ms. Hashimoto’s study did. In federal court…the acquittal rate for pro se defendants is virtually identical to the acquittal rate for represented defendants.
Of course there could well be other important variables that the Hashimoto study did not include, but it seems clear that there is not an “automatic penalty” for daring to represent yourself.
There are certain types of cases and situations where pro se representation may actually be an advantage. In debt collection cases, for example, the economic factors often outweigh legal issues. A vigorous pro se defendant can gain a significant advantage by taking energetic steps that a lawyer—always on the clock—would pragmatically be unable to take.
Courts are not always favorable to self-represented people for various reasons. But even with that bias, pro se plaintiffs have recorded some significant victories in civil courts.
Pro Se Representation in Debt Collection Cases
Defendants in debt collection cases have some significant economic advantages in conducting their cases. They also have fewer of the disadvantages that many other types of cases have. Debt collection cases tend to be document-intensive rather than witness-intensive. In the unusual case which actually goes to trial, there are not many things to prove or disprove, and the evidentiary issues are basic. Pro se defendants can argue whether the debt collector produces enough evidence. And whether that evidence is “admissible” in court for the court’s consideration. You won’t need much finesse.
This basic legal simplicity, and the fact that debt collectors drag defendants before the court against their wishes often seem to create a favorable impression on the judges.
If you would like us to take a look at your case and give you a sort of road map to what you need to do and how, take a look at our Personalized Evaluation product. If you’re in a lawsuit and already know you want to defend yourself without spending a lot of money on lawyers, then get out Debt Defense System.
Protect Your Rights
Even if you are reading this article late in the game, shortly before trial, and you are not already a member, you should consider doing so. We have materials helpful to last minute defense and trial preparation even if you are facing this rule.
If it’s a little earlier in the lawsuit, or if the debt collector has not filed suit, you have many other options. Membership can present you many benefits and help you win your case. Or you could check out some of our e-courses.