Self-help law center

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Representing yourself in court

Should I represent myself?

Most people come to court because something is affecting their lives, maybe in stressful and emotional ways. Learning the law and court processes can also be difficult and stressful. In fact, sometimes when people act as their own lawyer in complicated cases, they later need to hire a lawyer to "fix" mistakes. Hiring a lawyer after-the-fact could cost more than using a lawyer from the start. However, many people, for a number of reasons, think about representing themselves in court. There are some questions you should consider before you begin your case without using a lawyer.

Your responsibilities

The decision to represent yourself in court is an important one. When making this decision you must be aware of the responsibilities you are undertaking. The following are the basic responsibilities of a self-represented litigant.

You must follow the same standards of a lawyer. You should follow all the rules that apply to lawyers. If you fail to follow the rules, you may be subject to the same penalties as if a lawyer represented you.

For example, if you fail to file required paperwork with the court your case might be postponed to another date or dismissed entirely. You also could have an unfavorable ruling made against you that could affect issues such as visitation or the distribution of assets.

You should understand the legal process. The legal process is a complex and sometimes difficult to understand. Decisions you make during the process could adversely affect the outcome of your case. If an attorney represents the other party in the case you will be at a disadvantage.

You will have to do your homework. Representing yourself in a case may require a substantial amount of your time outside the courtroom. This includes gathering evidence in the proper form, completing forms that include instructions similar to tax forms, and completing research of statutes, rules of procedure and case law that apply to your case. Be aware that while court personnel are available to answer procedural questions concerning your case, they are prohibited from giving legal advice.

You need to remain objective. You have a personal interest in the outcome of the case that may deprive you of objectivity that you will require to present your case effectively.

You must maintain the integrity of the legal system. Communication between the parties and judge is restricted. Judges must be fair and impartial. For that reason, they are not allowed to discuss the case with only one of the parties. If information needs to be presented to the judge concerning the case both parties must be present.

You will be required to be on time. The court has a very busy schedule and only a limited amount of time to hear cases. It is also not a good idea to keep the judge who is going to decide your case waiting.

You should keep a file. A copy of each document or piece of information that is filed or that is delivered to the court should be kept in your file.

Your day in court

Read this six-act play to get an idea of what your day in court might be like. Learn about the roles of the participants and the steps before and during the trial. Reading this carefully will help you represent yourself by providing information on preparing and presenting your case.

How to act in court

The court is a very traditional and polite place where a certain demeanor (way of acting) is expected. You must act and speak in a way that helps you with your case.

  • Be on time! The court has a very busy schedule. If you are late, your case might be postponed to another date or dismissed entirely.
  • Dress professionally, as you would for an important event. This means that your clothing should be neat and clean, and that you are well groomed.
  • Do not bring your children into court.
  • Do not chew gum.
  • Be respectful to everyone in court. This includes the judge or court commissioner, court staff, the other party involved in your case, witnesses, court bailiff, and any other people in the area.
  • Address the judge as 'Your Honor'.
  • Do not use profanity, argue, or verbally react to answers given in court by the judge or commissioner, opposing party, or attorney. You will have your turn to speak.
  • Always remember the four Ps: Professionalism - Punctuality - Politeness - Preparation

General tips for representing yourself

The court is a very traditional and polite place where a certain demeanor (way of acting) is expected. When you are representing yourself, you are trying to persuade a judge or court commissioner that you are right. You must act and speak in a way that helps you with your case. Review these general tips for representing yourself.

How to get an interpreter for court

If you have a court hearing in any type of case (criminal or civil) and you need the services of an interpreter, it is the circuit court's responsibility to provide and pay for the interpreter. There are several ways you can request an interpreter:

By phone: You can call the clerk of court in the county where your hearing will be held and let staff know you need an interpreter and inform them of the language you best communicate in. If you need an interpreter or other communication device because of a disability, the court may have an ADA coordinator who handles those types of requests, so you may be directed to a different office.

In-person: You can request an interpreter in person by going to the clerk of court's office or window and making the request personally. If you speak a rarer language, staff may need help from you to identify the language. They may ask you to indicate the language by pointing to it from a list of possible languages. "I Speak" cards (external link) are bilingual cards that include a statement that requests an interpreter.

By form: You can also request an interpreter by completing a form and filing it with the clerk of court's office. GF-149 PDF is the form used to request an interpreter for a spoken language and GF-153 PDF is the form used for an accommodation request. Both of these forms are available on the court's website and can be printed out and filled out ahead of time.

For all requests, you should provide your name, address, the date and time of the hearing, the language or accommodation needed, and case number (if you know it). Please try to give the court as much time as possible to arrange for an interpreter, especially if you speak a more rare language. If you wait too long, the court may have difficulties finding an interpreter who is certified or qualified to do the job. As a reminder, the interpreter who is hired by the court works for the court—not you or the other side. He or she has a duty to abide by a Code of Ethics which requires him or her to be a neutral. If you experience a problem with a particular court interpreter, you can file a complaint.

Legal assistance

Although you have the right to represent yourself in court, there are risks in self representation. Persons not trained as lawyers often do not have or know how to find all of the information they need to effectively present their case; they are typically unfamiliar with court procedures and legal requirements; and they are often uninformed about the meaning and implications of controlling legal authority. We highly recommend that you consult with an attorney about your legal problems or case. In this section you will find:

Americans with Disabilities Act policies and procedures

The Wisconsin Court System is committed to providing equal access to court programs consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other state and federal laws. No individual with a disability will be refused participation in a service, program, or activity solely because the individual has a disability, needs an accommodation or because a building is inaccessible. The following page provides links to court system Americans with Disabilities Act policies and procedures.