A word to the wise: this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Some of you think that you can make a solid case. You’ve argued points before with family or friends on issues such as politics or sport and you feel you could bring this acumen to the court process.
For the purposes of this piece I'm going to focus on criminal law, not the civil law aspect of the court system.
Representing yourself in criminal court is generally not advisable. I’ve witnessed people come into court and represent themselves quite well and get a good result. But the number of times that this happens is quite low and then only for minor matters e.g. parking offences, seatbelt offences.
For more serious matters representing yourself is very risky. A criminal conviction is the penalty thats usually applied if you lose. After all you wouldn’t let an unqualified doctor prescribe medication to your child, would you?
The reasons why you shouldn’t represent yourself in court have nothing to do with your ability to argue your own case, although that is part of it. People usually come to court with perceptions of what is like. Not to speak unkindly, these sorts of perceptions are gained from years watching TV court dramas like Suits or -worse yet- Judge Judy.
THIS IS COURT
It starts with the courthouse itself, usually a large, cavernous building with various courtrooms on each floor. People are milling around. What room number are you in again? Is that upstairs? As you walk to your courtroom you pass clumps of people gathered to the side whispering to one another. These are lawyers and their clients, their lives in a kind of limbo, figuring out the next bit of strategy.
The place is like no other you’ve ever been in.
You enter your courtroom, already anxious. Your anxiety is driven partly by what you expect and partly by the knowledge that you have no idea what to expect as you’ve never been to court before.
The room is large, deep and bright, very bright. There are benches either side of you as you enter, the benches stretch ahead of you towards a raised wooden platform. This is where the court clerk sits. The court clerk is the Judge’s ‘eyes and ears’. They set the “running order” in which cases are called. They are a powerful group within the court system. Your eye is directed upwards, higher, to the person sitting behind the clerk. This is the Judge.
Around you members of the public are sitting uneasily, looking as uncomfortable as you. A selection of prison officers, probation services personnel and Gardai are standing at one side in huddled groups chatting quietly, some walking into and out of the courtroom, or in an out of a door to the side of the courtroom. This side door leads to the cells where prisoners are held.
On the benches stretching ahead of you are solicitors. One of their number is addressing the court on behalf of someone standing next to them who’s head is lowered. You strain your ear and lean forward slightly in your seat. You just can’t quite make out what they’re saying. It’s a sort of legal buzzing noise. The other lawyers wait their turn to speak. Some are exchanging suppressed laughter at some joke or other.
People who have never been to court before often say afterwards that they couldn’t hear what was being said. This is almost certainly not the case as most courtrooms have speakers and good acoustics.
What people most likely mean is that they couldn’t understand what was being said, which is different. This is probably because the language and tempo used in court has no equal anywhere else and this confuses people who are unfamiliar with it.
It’s not that you’re incapable of saying what you’d promised yourself to say, it’s that your environment is so alien to you, the context in which you had hoped to make your case so unusual, that it overloads your senses and fundamentally alters the mental frame which you had constructed in your mind through which you had seen the court process unfold.
This confusion often leads to paralysis.
Humans process information differently depending on the filter through which they experience the information. Environment is key. Your environment shapes your experience and understanding of events.
Something similar happens in Court. You're in a very unfamiliar environmment.
THROUGHOUT ALL OF THIS YOU'LL notice that I never once mentioned the rules of evidence. Court procedure is bound by rules, by legal precedent, by evidence which is deemed admissible, and which is not.
That’s another filter you hadn’t prepared for.
I’m not suggesting people should not represent themselves. That would be absurd because there are plenty of occasions when they can and maybe should. Some people also assume that hiring a lawyer would be too expensive. Others think that they can achieve ‘justice’ on their own.
One day I heard a man say to a Judge that he had come to court to “seek justice”. The Judge in question had a sort of gimlet eye and when he looked at you his expression often seemed as if he were dictating surrender terms. Without missing a beat, he drily observed: “This is a court of law, not a court of Justice”.
This may seem cruel, but courts have rules, usually ancient ones honed from 300-400 years of often painful jurisprudence.
If you insist on representing yourself, at least bear this in mind.